It was recently reported by rail chiefs that over the next 5 years businesses in Britain will need 182,000 new engineers every year. Right now, it is estimated the UK is falling short by 69,000 engineers per annum. The rail industry in particular faces even further skills shortages, with one in five rail engineers currently aged over 55. – Rail Staff Magazine, UK
Although there is an increased focus on investment into new schemes such as the construction of the new National College for High Speed Rail which is part of an industry wide strategy aimed at getting more young people to take up careers in Railways, it is evident that it may be time to face the fact that new approaches are required. Engineering, design, planning and construction skills are essential as Britain looks to invest billions of pounds into modernising the rail network, particularly with the final arrival of Britain’s long overdue move into high speed rail.
Could Virtual Reality hold the answers to our engineering skill woes?
A study released in 2011 by US Research Firm, NPD announced an overwhelming figure, stating 91 percent of kids between 2 and 17, are playing video games on a regular basis. The firm also declared it was adults that still made the largest ratio of gamers although the strongest gains have come from kids between the ages of 2 and 5. Similar statistics are seen worldwide, making Gaming one of the largest leisure activities in the world.
Gamification has always been associated with entertainment purposes. However, with the uprising of Virtual Reality, basic AI (artificial intelligence) and low cost, high quality hardware products, many are starting to realise that it’s a technology that could transform the way we educate one another.
Gamification and the attraction of new talent
It is only too evident when speaking to students and promoting STEM subjects in schools, that the next generation see engineering as a boring and dirty job. Many of us know this not to be true, with engineering being possibly one of the most exciting, challenging and rewarding careers to endeavour. That said, engineering can be seen to be trailing behind in terms of excitement when compared to the likes of the Software, Entertainment and Media industries. In this century technology is moving at such a rapid rate that intellectual property can become utterly useless within 6 months. Those born into the world post millennium (and some just before), have grown up in a world in which technology has become a part of them. No longer do we have to research, learn and hold mountains of data in our heads; at a click of a button google can tell us everything, literally anything. Or maybe we don’t even need to click a button, we can just speak to our devices. With the above in mind, it is inherent that to attract talent into the engineering industry, the industry must invest and adopt technology at an accelerated rate.
Virtual Reality provides the basis to pass knowledge on via the use of games, in a safe and hazard free environment. Experience is the most powerful way of developing new skills and it’s only through practice that we truly learn all aspects of conducting a task. Virtual reality provides us with the ability to train in a near identical environment, fully immersing ourselves into the task at hand. What’s more, perfecting and developing this capability today will perverse the skills and training for tomorrow. By using IoT (Internet of Things) organisations will also be able to store and share these skills worldwide with ease, helping to train employees more remotely and retaining information for the future employees to come. It is critical to invest in this type of skills capture now to ensure the skills aren’t lost and knowledge can be transferred well into the future.
How does a virtual world drive better safety behaviours and better efficiencies in the real world?
Virtual Reality enables us to go anywhere our imagination and creativity can conceive. The only limitations are the ability to generate the interactive environments within software code. It’s amazing to think that the combination of convex lenses with a small screen, mixed with an ordered series of ones and zeros can help take people into environments that, to be frank for those experiencing another’s design, we never even knew existed. VR provides an ability like never before, bringing digital data to a new level of life. Welcome to the era of digital immersion.
In simple terms, virtual reality fundamentally means ‘nearly-reality’, and is the creation of a virtual environment presented to our senses in such a way that we experience it as if it was real. It’s critical to note, that the more senses that we are able to present with false data, aligned to the other sensory experiences, the more immersive and real the situation becomes.
Due to the versatility of Virtual Reality, we can generate scenes of any environment. It’s the use of realistic representative environments that lends itself to being the future of safety and training. VR enables us to recreate the environments where we work, and superimpose hazards that can occur in the real world, helping provide our people with critical knowledge and learning, only gained through experience. Despite having robust plans, procedures and systems, people can, and do, still make mistakes. Virtual reality technology can help us to minimise unnecessary risk to our teams, clients and the people around us, helping them understand the hazards to look out for and how to act safely.
As part of research carried out by B-Safe Management Solutions, it was identified that people who have been involved in a near miss or who have experienced an incident often have much better safety behaviours. VR can enable us to recreate and immerse ourselves in near miss scenarios, allowing us to shock our senses and improve safety behaviours, all whilst remaining in a safe environment such as an office.
How VR is being developed for action within our business.
Our teams work in some of the most challenging and hazardous environments to ensure that the places we live, work and travel are kept operational and maintained at the highest level. We know what we do matters and our teams always go the extra mile to ensure the infrastructure and services we all rely upon are operating to their maximum capacities. Doing this should never come at the detriment of our teams health and safety and that’s why at Ferrovial Services we believe injuries are not inevitable. Nothing is more important than keeping our people, clients and the those around us safe.
Ferrovial Services is continuously scouting for new and innovative technologies to improve the safety of our people and those around us, and if it doesn’t exist we strive to create it, leveraging on knowledge and capabilities developed in other industries or setting about creating something from the ground up. This innovative culture is embedded into our people and continuously encourages all our people to think of new and innovative ways of protecting, developing and keeping our most critical assets safe: our people.
Virtual Reality is still in its infancy and although well explored in the entertainment industry, little has been done in terms of exploring its full potential benefit for enterprise. There are three key areas Ferrovial Services is currently exploring to try and unlock the potential of VR for safety and design optimisation:
Immersive Site Briefings
Virtual reality offers us the ability to conduct task rehearsal activities away from hazardous environments. We all know practice makes perfect and in the case of our business, we don’t want any of our employees to go out on site without being fully trained and practiced at what they do. VR also provides the capability for interactive site briefings, helping our engineers and site staff understand the environments they are to work better than ever. By using visual data from BIM models and real footage, we can expose our people to sites and hazards before they even step foot on site. This allows us to create more immersive operational briefings which were previously carried out verbally with site diagrams and drawings.
We’re working with experts in the design and build of bespoke immersive and mixed reality solutions to deliver Virtual Reality training capabilities, a great example of this has been the recent completion of a driver fatigue simulator. The simulator uses virtual reality technology to emphasise the consequences of driver fatigue and help users understand the catastrophic incidents that can result from making the decision to get behind a wheel when fatigued. The use of basic applied intelligence and tracking enables the computer to generate varied scenarios based on the user’s interaction, making the situation unpredictable and more realistic.
BIM & Design
Further to the safety benefits of Virtual Reality, VR also gives us the capability to improve design, by enabling us to review the integration of new infrastructure asset proposals with old legacy assets. VR provides us with the ability to virtually simulate environments in full scale helping to mitigate issues often overseen in the design phase. This helps reduce the cost of discovering these unforeseen issues at the time of implementing on site, which is often an expensive mistake to discover and can lead to significant snags.
A matter of time until this is standard
It’s impossible to say when exactly virtual reality in our industry will become the norm, but with the associated safety benefits that it brings it’s only a matter of time before it does.
If you’re interested and would like more information on what Amey and Ferrovial Services are doing with Virtual Reality, please email Simon.Grundy@amey.co.uk for more information.