Metro Tunnel goes virtual

Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Project is one of the first Australian major projects to induct construction workers using virtual reality situations. Roads & Infrastructure speaks to stakeholders about the technology.

A Melbourne commuter wanders through the Melbourne CBD on autopilot, unbeknownst

what is happening below their feet.

While cranes dot the sky and signage is ever-present, the commuter remains unaware of the intricacies of the Metro Tunnel Project, as contractors work underground to deliver major works.

Over the past three years, construction teams, road headers and affectionately named tunnel boring machines (TBMs) have been making their way through the CBD and North Melbourne.

In Melbourne’s biggest rail project since the City Loop, the Metro Tunnel will see the construction of twin rail tunnels and five underground stations from North Melbourne through to the Domain precinct, south of the CBD.

As a large part of tunnelling is happening underground with TBMs, this comes with an array of safety risks.

To prepare workers for the underground environment, virtual reality (VR) is being used. The innovative technology is offering a safe, above-ground alternative to the working environment.

This VR scenario is one of the first-of-its-kind used on a major project in Australia and is increasingly incorporated in training  the next generation of construction workers.

CYP Design and Construction (CYP D&C), tasked with delivering the tunnel and stations works package, is using VR for its worker inductions.

Alongside construction workers, students at the RMIT University had the chance to view the construction of the Metro Tunnel Project without ever setting foot underground.

CYP D&C uses VR as part of the induction process to train new workers before they enter the underground sites. VR is becoming a growing trend in the construction and education industries, including in the United Kingdom and India.

The Construction Wales Innovation Centre in the United Kingdom announced in 2019 a £2 million project to improve efficiency and employee safety in the construction industry using state-of-the-art immersive technologies such as VR and augmented reality (AR).

Major Indian contractor Larson & Toubro Construction has also developed immersive VR and AR scenarios to demonstrate safety practices.

Closer to home, Nuria Florentino, People Director with CYP D&C at the Metro Tunnel Project, says the VR induction is part of the awareness and safety training component of tunnel induction.

CYP D&C has created two VR scenarios – one for the Mined Tunnel Induction and one for the TBM Tunnel Induction.

“Each scenario includes a familiarisation of the exact environment workers will be entering.

“It takes them through steps to access the underground environment, key processes such as tagging in and communication underground, as well as safety features and first aid equipment locations,” Ms. Florentino says.

Both VR scenarios also end with an emergency evacuation drill to reinforce what workers in each type of tunnel need to do in the case of an emergency.

The scenarios were created using real video footage of the mined tunnel environment alongside drawings and plans for the TBM tunnel induction.

Image from inside the Metro Tunnel virtual reality experience.

This was to ensure the VR situations were as close as possible to the real environments.

“We did a number of development sprints to ensure what was being developed reflected the actual environment, such as making sure the clothes and equipment were exactly the same as in the mined tunnel environment,” Ms. Florentino says.

Both of the scenarios take workers through the process of entering the underground environment, indicating what they need to do to enter safely and correctly.

There is a familiarisation section and safety evacuation section.

“Providing an awareness of the actual environment before going underground is especially important if people have not worked in an underground environment previously,” Ms. Florentino says.

The VR scenarios provide a safe opportunity to expose workers to the exact underground environment and reinforces the procedures needed for underground safety.

While it increases safety in training, by removing workers from underground experiences before they are trained, it also provides another learning opportunity for workers.

“VR simulations move some of the training away from the classroom style to a more practical or immersive style, which is beneficial for construction workers who are more hands-on,” Ms. Florentino says.

For CYP D&C, employees’ learnings from the VR experience is reinforced in the rest of the induction program as well as in training and development undertaken on the project.

As part of a new collaboration between RMIT, Melbourne Metro Interface Team (MMIT) and project contractor CYP D&C, students from the school of property, construction and project management were given a VR tour of the site in late 2019.

“Without VR, it would not be possible for us to take large groups of students underground to experience an actual environment, so these VR scenarios
offer an excellent alternative,” Ms. Florentino says.

As students are not able to enter the Metro Tunnel’s underground construction sites, a virtual reconstruction of the site enabled them to get up close and personal.

The VR tour used 3D generated images to transport the user into the tunnels and stations project, including the new State Library Station, located at the northern end of Swanston Street.

Like the students, workers have been able to see what the environment is like and gain an understanding of the safety procedures and requirements before entering the physical underground space.

Following the success of the Metro Tunnel virtual tour at RMIT University, there are plans for the program to continue to be available to students.

School of Accounting Associate Professor Eva Tsahuridu says VR training experiences provide students with unique training opportunities and place people in real-world scenarios without the multiple risks that actual placement may entail.

“We have a lot of evidence that suggests that the use of VR in training leads to better outcomes in performance, fewer errors, improved skill and knowledge acquisition and retention,” Dr. Tsahuridu says.

Dr. Tsahuridu and her colleague, School of Accounting Associate Professor Gillian Vesty, developed an accounting ethics serious game that enables professionals

to learn by doing.

Dr. Vesty says VR training could and should replace practical training in areas where it would be risky for the people involved.

“Immersive environment training can replace real environments which might be dangerous or feature expensive equipment that could be damaged or destroyed in training,” Dr. Vesty says.

Dr. Vesty says the use of VR can also significantly increase engagement with certain topics, at university and in industry, especially if the topic is generally perceived as boring.

“Immersive technologies are designed to be practice-oriented and replace learning that has been traditionally performed through reading user manuals, textbooks, codes of practice,” she says.

Due to the success of the VR approach and the accounting modules, the team is working with construction, engineering and health departments for collaboration on future projects.

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