The reality of a VR future at National Grid
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The reality of a VR future at National Grid

Jim Mortleman — October 2017

How the UK electricity and gas network giant is gearing up for the broad deployment of virtual and augmented reality technologies.

With core operations in both its native UK and in the northeastern US, £15 billion ($20bn) energy transmission giant National Grid (NG) is responsible for delivering gas and electricity to millions of households and businesses. While its UK operation spends around £1.7 billion a year on infrastructure, such as electricity substations, gas compressors and power lines, it also sees huge potential in exploiting more cutting-edge digital technology.

To foster a culture of innovation, the company established ngLabs in late 2015, a dedicated division with branches in the UK and US. This small team of software developers sits separately from the standard delivery functions of IT to ensure they have the scope to explore potentially disruptive technologies. “We work on low-budget proofs-of-concept and prototypes that may cost no more than £20-40K,” explains Richard Wiles, National Grid UK’s digital innovation manager.

One area that’s been showing increasing promise for industrial applications over the past two years is virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) technology. NG’s engineers often have to work in dispersed, complex, hazardous environments, and the company has long realized the benefits of being able to train people using a 3D virtual representation that gives them something close to a ‘hands-on’ experience. “We’ve had a big Thales VR rig at our regional training centre for a while,” says Wiles. “So when we started to see affordable, consumer-grade VR technology emerge, we began investigating ways it could help us deliver better business outcomes.”
Preserving employees’ knowledge

A major challenge for the company is the fact that over the next five years around 20% of its engineering workforce is due to retire. “When those people walk out of the door they’ll be taking many years of experience with them. For example, most of the younger people coming in won’t have the skills to tear down an asset and build it up from scratch like these engineers can,” says Wiles.

Richard Wiles, digital innovation manager at National Grid
On top of that, the company has to follow a vast number of operational, safety and regulatory procedures, with many regional variations. “We have a field force of 1,400 in electricity transmission and around 1,700 in gas, all working in their particular patches. People have developed best practice that has been impossible to capture and share until now. But if you film them with a 360º camera — equipment that can cost as little as £200 — you can start to share best practice virtually, via a simple headset, and standardize procedures more effectively,” says Wiles.

The team has developed that idea further in order to create AR facility tours. “On top of the imagery from the camera, we’re overlaying specific information about sites — info only the experienced staff know, like ‘this site gate doesn’t function properly’ or ‘you need to be careful with that particular compressor.’ Embedding 360º imagery with audio is a really inexpensive and easy way to familiarize inexperienced engineers with a site. And it’s scalable,” says Wiles.

The success of the pilot meant the ngLabs was inundated with requests to create AR tours. “It became so time-consuming we developed a toolset to allow people to import imagery and easily mark it up themselves,” says Wiles.
Dealing with emergencies

With another project the team looked at whether AR could improve NG’s emergency response handling, starting with its biggest gas terminal in St Fergus, Scotland. If anything goes seriously wrong at the site, NG has a ‘war room’ in Warwick, where it can access detailed site plans and work out how to handle the emergency. To augment that, the team is currently building an application targeted at the Microsoft HoloLens platform, the self-contained holographic computer that allows users to mix physical and digital environments. Scans of the St Fergus site will enable the team to create an accurate 3D model that will be integrated with Skype for Business so those working on the emergency will be able to videocall on-site engineers from within HoloLens as they view a scale 3D model of the facility on the HoloLens tabletop screen.

The team is also exploring the use of consumer-grade VR technology to speed up design. “Every time we build an electricity substation or gas compressor, the contractors working on the design send digital models for review. That means bringing our engineers from different locations into our big VR rig — which is expensive and time-consuming. But there’s a great opportunity to spin that model up in a VR environment so it can be streamed and viewed anywhere, whether on a smartphone VR headset or in a web browser,” says Wiles.
Too soon to scale?

Despite the success of targeted deployments to date, there are still barriers to NG scaling up many of these pilots. A lack of standards means integration with other systems is still a challenge and some of its remote sites simply don’t have sufficient mobile bandwidth to stream the applications. At the same time, VR content creation is still very costly (hence NG’s focus on developing VR tooling). “Once we can scale these systems across the entire business we can save significant amounts of money and time. But at the moment the cost of support and deployment simply outweighs the potential return on investment,” says Wiles.

Nonetheless, Wiles wants NG to be as well positioned to take advantage of AR/VR technology as it matures. He says: “We are using VR daily in our gas transmission business for reviewing clearances and access, and in the US we’ve rolled out headsets with 360º training videos for some of the more obscure procedures. And while we’re keeping a close eye on industry developments such as the Daqri Smart Helmet, Google Glass 2 and the Epson Moverio, we’re waiting for the market to settle down a bit before committing to large-scale roll-outs.”

• Richard Wiles was speaking at TechXLR8 in London.

First published October 2017
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