​Augmented and virtual reality helping design better pipeline infrastructure

Construction of pipelines and associated facilities, like the construction of any other infrastructure, has its share of rework. Rework corrects mistakes during construction, problems from unexpected occurrences such as flooding, or flaws in design. New applications of augmented and virtual reality technologies can help tackle the latter.

“A common thing is that people often don’t really realize the three-dimensional aspects of the design until it is constructed when they see a feature and say that’s not going to work” says Jeff LaFrenz, president and chief executive officer, Vizworx, which specializes in the application of leading-edge technologies to solve real-world industrial problems.

Design problems caught during construction can be extremely costly to correct. Worst is if they are not caught during construction and become embedded in a facility, creating an operational inefficiency or safety issue.

LaFrenz cites the example of a Calgary-based oil and gas producer that reputedly build a facility where all the valves that were handling for maintenance were too high for anyone to reach.

“People were using cinderblocks or whatever was available to get at them. Ultimately, they had to buy and distribute 700 ladders throughout the facility so that people could climb up and actually reach these valves,” he says.

Had this been caught in the design phase, it would have been simple to correct. Augmented and virtual reality technology can help catch these kinds of problems because people evolved to intrinsically understand three-dimensional reality. Even 3D representations on the 2D screen can lead to oversights such as this.

Immersive technologies such as augmented reality allow for a 3D experience by creating a full-scale facility around a person wearing special goggles.

“They can walk around the facility as if it were actually physically there and get a sense of whether they can actually reach that and then decide if they can get a wrench in there to maintain it, or whether they can get a piece of equipment through a set of doors. This kind of capability proving immensely valuable,” LaFrenz says.

The oil and gas industry is already using virtual reality and augmented reality to in other applications, such as visualizing oil and gas reservoirs. LaFrenz draws out the difference between the technologies.

“Augmented and virtual reality are similar but the way they are deployed is quite different,” he says. “[Virtual reality] is fully immersive. You put on a headset. You’re in this virtual world where you can do basically anything if somebody has created a program for you. It provides you with a lot of information that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access, but it takes you away from the real world into the virtual environment.”

Augmented reality, though similar, brings three-dimensional objects into the physical world. Virtual objects start to show up in the world around you so that you can interact with them as though they were physical objects.

“This creates a lot of interesting opportunities for engagement with the physical world by overlaying digital information, creating insights that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to have,” LaFrenz says.

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