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Crossrail tunnel and radioactive Sellafield power plant explored with VR

Joseph Flaig

An image from the VR model of a Crossrail tunnel (Credit: Clicks and Links)
An image from the VR model of a Crossrail tunnel (Credit: Clicks and Links)

Tablet in one hand and pointer in the other, I travelled along a grey tunnel deep beneath Liverpool Street. Looking around, I could inspect markings on the curved walls and the rails beneath me. Trains won’t run on the tracks until the end of the month, but I had early access to the Crossrail tunnel courtesy of a new VR program from Manchester-based company Clicks and Links.

A 3D map has been created of a 50m section of the tunnel, which can be accessed using VR headsets such as the HTC Vive. The aim of the “multi-sensory experience” is to allow engineers access to areas which are unsafe or difficult to access, potentially saving time and money compared to physical visits, said CEO Vin Sumner today (16 May) at the VR World conference in London.

The company used tripod-mounted laser scans to map the Crossrail tunnel beneath Liverpool Street. An autonomous drone from start-up Hovering then flew up and down the tunnel several nights in a row, taking photographs and point-mapping the area while work was paused.

Clicks and Links then processed the data and created the VR app. Users can move around in the tunnel, making annotations on the virtual model and taking photographs with a virtual tablet. Others can then access the notes and pictures, reviewing and making decisions about possible structural problems without accessing the tunnel. “Nothing works better than visiting a real project site together with a colleague, so that is the interaction we are striving to deliver through our immersive platform,” said the company.

“Access to the real tunnel is expensive so if you want to look for snags and problems and things like that, it is much better in virtual reality as you can save money,” said Sumner. Visits could also disrupt work on the train project, which is due to start operating between Liverpool Street and Shenfield at the end of the month. He said the model is accurate “down to a few millimetres” and contains 100 million unique points.

The company also created a virtual model of part of Sellafield in Cumbria based on photographs. Radioactive waste has leaked in some areas of the nuclear power station, posing a health risk to workers trying to decommission the material. “The amount of time they have is quite limited because of radiation. You need to make sure you can take things apart in the right order,” said Sumner to Professional Engineering.

The model of Sellafield allows users to move large metal structures around the room, showing what can be moved and how it fits. Engineers can then plan ahead and stay in the room for the shortest possible time, said Sumner.

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