Technology such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence — the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters a generation ago — is now a reality.
The same goes for construction sites, mines and landfills. Worksites around the world are getting increasingly smarter, safer and more efficient thanks to things like simulated work environments and machine learning.
But there are still roadblocks to this new way of working.
Let’s take a look at what virtual reality and artificial intelligence are doing for worksites today, and what needs to happen for these technologies to become everyday tools for people who work at mines or landfills.
Virtual Reality Saves Time, Money and Lives by Simulating Tasks
Professionals in a wide variety of industries are discovering the benefits of being able to simulate their work environments. In those realities, you can build models and test a near-infinite number of outcomes — and at very little cost to your bottom line.
VR can also model future realities as well as current realities. This creates some exciting opportunities for worksite engineers. As Peter J. Barden, AIA, NCARB, writes at Construction Superintendent, four-dimensional modeling (a 3-D model plus time) brings new layers of intelligence to the way industry professionals schedule work and anticipate risks.
“[This] will allow superintendents to step into the future of their project and understand requirements and pitfalls long before they occur, while also affording the construction team the ability to ensure the construction schedule is being maintained through the review of installed components and comparing those items to the 4-D model.”
And at mining sites, VR is creating collaborative environments that can feel as big as the mining site itself, says Russ Alford, general manager of medical equipment planning and management, Turner Construction.
“You’ll see two-wall caves so teams can collaborate in real scale and real time without having to leave the trailer,” he tells Construction Dive. “We want to have those caves on every site if we can. More than anything else, it will be the tool to change collaboration on the job site and enable a level of communication that will get much more detailed.”
One other great feature of a simulated environment: You cannot get injured in one.
Wilhelm Prinsloo, managing director at Simulated Training Solutions 3D in South Africa, tells Mining Weekly that this makes it possible for mining executives to virtually go down into their mines to get a better idea of what hazards their employees face so they can make the changes necessary to improve work conditions.
Augmented Reality Offers Real-Time Support for Workers
A cousin of virtual reality, augmented reality encompasses all of the technologies that overlay interactive digital information on top of our fields of perception (think Google Glass).
This has exciting applications in equipment maintenance.
In Europe, researchers working on a project called EMIMSAR developed an augmented reality tool that allows miners to work on machinery underground, where space and visibility are limited.
“Miners can view ‘augmented reality’ versions of their equipment on handheld computers and helmet-mounted displays,” project leaders write. “They can move through images of the machine and its components, call up data on the history and present condition of the machine, or be guided on how to repair or maintain components.”
This lets miners see real-time visualizations of the machinery as they’re working on it, and there are even voiceovers that provide step-by-step instructions. The project was so successful that Germany’s largest coal mining company, RAG, adopted it to plan maintenance on its long wall equipment, belt conveyors and loaders, Julian Turner writes at Mining-Technology.com.
And at CSC, researchers cite a project by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation called ReMoTe (Remote Mobile Tele-assistance), which projects an actual hand onto a maintenance worker’s field of vision for more precise remote instruction.
“In addition to simple pointer functionality, the hand gestures allow the expert, often located in a major metropolitan city, to demonstrate how to perform specific complex manual procedures for workers located on site,” they write.
Companies are already building AR-enabled hardware for onsite employees. One such company, Daqri, has built a Smart Helmet that visualizes data (and even thermal vision) onto the visor.
AI is Teaching Your Worksite How to Be Smarter
The full power of predictive analytics is coming to mining sites very soon.
In early 2017, Goldcorp Inc. and Integra Gold Corp. hosted the #DisruptMining event, in which five tech companies pitched their ideas to five mining and tech executives. Two of those five companies were built around artificial intelligence and machine learning:
- Goldspot Discoveries, which was awarded $100,000 for its pitch, uses a machine learning algorithm to make mineral exploration targeting much more precise. With that intel, the company can then “stake acreage, acquire projects and royalties, and invest in public vehicles to create a portfolio of assets with the greatest reward to risk ratio.”
- KORE Geosystems Inc., which was also awarded $100,000 plus the chance to negotiate a million-dollar deal, delivers engineering and operational intelligence in real time so engineers and managers can make high-level (i.e. expensive) decisions with much better insight.
And at Mining Magazine, Dr. Penny Stewart of PETRA Data Science has a piece that explores how machine-learning predictive tools, such as her company’s Forestall algorithm, can know hours in advance when to expect downtime so that operators and maintenance crews are ready.
Finally, expect to see a convergence between drones and AI very soon.
Mouncey Ferguson at Core77 has an excellent piece on these AI-native drones — drones both built with AI and flown with AI. The automated navigation is especially interesting: One product designer has outfitted a drone with the hardware and software that will make it capable of navigating a racecourse on its own after a few test flights. The next step, the piece notes, is to give these drones situational awareness then teach them how to roam freely.
4 Challenges That Impede This Generation of Technology
Many of these tools are already in use at worksites around the world, but many others face some significant barriers to wider use.
1. A Tech Skills Gap
First, as VIATechnik founder and president Danielle Dy Bunico points out on CONEXPO-CON/AGG’s podcast, there is a skills hurdle in hardhat industries. “Somebody who’s coming with a degree in computer science is going to work for companies like Google, Amazon and Apple,” she says.
Therefore, the expertise to grow these technologies in industries such as mining or construction need to be developed within, she says.
2. A Worksite’s Existing Tech Infrastructure
Steve Soechtig, who leads teams that develop digital experiences for Deloitte Digital, tells TechTarget’s Nicole Laskowski that AR and VR have substantial processing and bandwidth needs because they work in real time. At many worksites, these tools might not be interoperable with legacy systems, he says.
3. Physical Limitations
Especially with augmented reality, certain inherent flaws in the technology — at least, as it currently exists — will hinder its application. For example, Eric Sabelman and Roger Lam of Kaiser Permanente have an excellent analysis at IEEE of the dangers AR can present simply because it disrupts the ways our eyes normally work.
“[O]ur innate neural wiring prefers images of people to objects — and that is the case even if the people are virtual and the objects are real,” they write. “So if you’re looking at something not human in the real world, but the AR image includes people (or even simple shapes resembling the human form) AR will win the struggle for attention.”
This is an evergreen challenge, especially with disruptive technology. But as Black & Veatch’s Brian Melton notes, because the FAA’s guidelines restrict drone flights to within an operator’s line of sight, their use is severely restrained.
“Drones have the capability for autonomous flight, where they can be programmed to inspect miles of natural gas pipeline or power line distribution,” he writes. “However, using drones on large linear projects poses a challenge for utilities due to current Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.”
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