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Infrastructure innovators use VR games to streamline Scandinavian tunnel design

The future of making things

Photos courtesy of LimbForge

Virtual environments illuminate real design problems before construction

On infrastructure projects, everything is big: budget, schedule, scope, and—most of all—risk. When it designed a new rail tunnel near Bergen, Norway, architecture, engineering, and design consultancy Norconsult made a large risk smaller by applying advanced technology to a critical-yet-cumbersome design requirement—the railway signaling system. To prevent costly construction delays due to inadequate signs and signals, Norconsult used 3D modeling and VR gamification in infrastructure design to help foresee potential design problems. The interactive game environment it created has set a new standard for streamlining design evaluation, validation, optimization, and approval.

A large organization cultivates the spirit of a startup

With roots dating back to 1929, Norconsult is the largest multidisciplinary technical consultancy in Norway. It applies its expertise to the design and construction of airports, public event arenas, oil fields, highways, hospitals, dams, bridges, railways, and tunnels, to name but a few of the 20,000 projects in its extensive portfolio.

Based in Sandvika, near Norway’s capital city Oslo, Norconsult has nearly 3,300 employees across 88 global offices. Although its large size is an asset, it also can be a disadvantage: The bigger an organization, the slower it moves. To channel the ethos of a much smaller, nimbler firm, Norconsult established an internal team called the “Bleeding Edge.” “We are 30 to 40 of the most innovative employees who push the development of technology to make our work practices more efficient and offer our clients a better product,” explains Bleeding Edge member Thomas Angeltveit, a civil engineer and BIM coordinator who evangelizes the use of 3D modeling and technology within Norconsult’s thriving transportation practice. “We’re trying to be the best consultant we can be by always using the newest technology.”

Thomas Angeltveit, BIM coordinator on the railway team at Norconsult, has been working on the Ulriken Tunnel project since 2015. Courtesy of Norconsult AS.

Unclogging a vital economic artery

Known as the Bergensbanen, or Bergen Line, the Norwegian railway between Oslo and Bergen meanders 500 kilometers (approximately 310 miles) through breathtaking Nordic terrain. But it isn’t just one of Europe’s most scenic rail lines; because it connects Norway’s two largest cities, it’s also economically vital. It’s critical that trains traverse it quickly, easily, and safely.

The route’s final leg, between Arna and Bergen, passes through the Ulriken Tunnel, a 7.8-kilometer (4.8-mile) tunnel beneath Mount Ulriken. Built in 1964, it’s the most-trafficked single-track tunnel in Northern Europe—and it has been a major bottleneck for years. “The capacity of the existing tunnel isn’t sufficient to drive enough trains” to meet passenger- and freight-transportation needs, Angeltveit explains. In 2010, Norconsult began working with Norway’s state-owned rail authority, Bane NOR, on a project to double capacity by building a second Ulriken Tunnel parallel to the first.

Scheduled for completion in 2022, the project presents significant challenges for builders, who must bore a new tunnel through Mount Ulriken while also upgrading the existing tunnel and associated rail stations—all without disrupting current railway traffic.

Rendering of Bergen Station, the terminus of the Bergen Line. Courtesy of Norconsult AS/Bane NOR/Baezeni.

Railway safety is the priority

To create a new Ulriken Tunnel without disturbing the old one or disrupting rail service, Bane NOR would need to use an 1,800-ton tunnel boring machine (TBM) that would take 18 months to excavate the hard rock on which Mount Ulriken rests. It’s the first time a TBM would be used to bore a railway tunnel in Norway, where conventional blasting is the norm. It would require 18 months to excavate the hard rock on which Mount Ulriken rests.

A large infrastructure project like this one doesn’t just face technical challenges; there are also administrative hurdles. On rail projects, one of the most significant roadblocks is getting regulatory approval of the sign and signaling system, which is paramount for railway safety. “On rail projects, the hardest thing to get approved is the signaling system,” Angeltveit says. “That’s because it’s the heart of the rail. It operates everything. If a train driver can’t see a signal—and drives too far or doesn’t stop—it will shut down the whole rail system.”

The tunnel boring machine breaks through Ulriken Mountain in Bergen on August 29, 2017. Courtesy of Warren Eversley/Bane NOR/Norconsult AS.

Gaming the system

To tackle the Ulriken Tunnel project’s complex design and construction challenges, Norconsult’s use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) helped the company coordinate across disciplines more efficiently. “BIM is a key success factor in our projects, since we’re developing new technologies so fast now,” Angeltveit says. BIM models for the tunnel project and station upgrades were created using AutoCAD, Civil 3D, and Revit, together with Navisworks to collaborate with construction teams.

Addressing the administrative challenges around the signaling system required a different approach. What makes the necessary approvals so difficult to obtain is the fact that signals typically are installed years before train operators can test them. Errors are therefore common. Angeltveit wondered: If train operators could test signals earlier, would approvals be easier to obtain?

To find out, he conceived the idea of marrying the BIM models with virtual reality to create a game environment that would allow train operators to “drive” on the future tracks before they were built. “We had models for all the disciplines—the same models we handed off to the contractors—and put them into a game engine,” Angeltveit explains. The team animated the 3D models with 3ds Max and augmented them with laser scans of real-world data, such as the layout of the train cockpit, using ReCap.

  • An immersive VR game allows train operators to “drive” through the new Ulriken Tunnel in a simulated cockpit created using 3D laser scans of an actual train.

  • Users drive the route, using meter marks in the track bed to judge their distance from the nearest signal, and flag problems with signals as they’re playing.

  • Train operators advised moving some signals inside the tunnel for greater visibility, saving considerable cost by making the changes before construction.

  • The virtual environment also shows fixtures and equipment in the tunnel to run emergency simulations and support training for operations and maintenance.

  • “Drone mode” provides a bird’s-eye view of the upgraded Arna station at the entrance to the Ulriken Tunnel.

Images courtesy of Norconsult AS/Bane NOR/Baezeni

Immersed in potential

Within the game experience, train operators drove on the virtual train tracks under the supervision of civil engineers, who used their performance to evaluate the placement of signs and signals. The virtual environment “feels as if you are there,” Angeltveit explains, “and that’s a huge benefit when you’re trying to get approval for something that’s not yet built.” Through an iterative design process, the engineers refined and optimized the signaling system. “Working with train drivers gave us a better understanding of their thought process,” he continues. “We were able to benefit from their experience driving a real train.”

Bane NOR has also gotten additional benefit from the game as a visual aid for emergency responders. By playing the game in “drone mode”—navigating the project from the perspective of an unmanned aerial vehicle—personnel can familiarize themselves with evacuation routes or simulate emergency scenarios. Similar immersive environments could help project teams foresee operational and maintenance needs, helping them design buildings and infrastructure that are optimized for end users. “There are lots of opportunities here to explore,” Angeltveit says.

Video courtesy of Norconsult AS/Bane NOR/Baezeni (2:18 min.)

A better, safer tunnel than ever before

Construction of the tunnel progresses toward the 2022 completion date, reaching a milestone when the TBM finished boring through Mount Ulriken in August 2017. When the new double-track railway is complete, more trains will be able to transport more people and cargo between Arna and Bergen, at faster speeds, and at more frequent intervals.

In the meantime, the marriage of BIM, VR, and gaming has already borne fruit for Norconsult, whose efforts won third place in the infrastructure category in Autodesk’s 2017 AEC Excellence Awards (US site) competition. According to Angeltveit, the VR game experience has delivered benefits that include a streamlined regulatory-review process that cut years off the standard approval time; stronger stakeholder buy-in, as the game helped even nontechnical users visualize project plans; and, ultimately, reduced costs, because mistakes could be mitigated before construction rather than corrected afterward.

Perhaps the most powerful benefit of all is the tunnel itself, which, thanks to the game, will operate at peak performance long after construction crews are gone. “In the end, we can help to deliver a better, safer tunnel and stations than ever before,” Angeltveit says.

Arna Station upgrade under construction, with a train coming from the existing tunnel and the new tunnel to the left. Courtesy of Ingvild Eikeland/Bane NOR/Norconsult AS.

Signaling change for the future of infrastructure design

Based on its initial success with the Ulriken Tunnel, Norconsult has made VR gamification a standard operating procedure on all of its rail projects to support signaling design and approval. The company is also exploring other use cases. On an urban light-rail project, for example, Norconsult is using a VR game experience to get feedback from tram drivers to optimize the design of traffic lanes for bikes and emergency vehicles. Clients, meanwhile, are using the immersive environments in presentations to senior management and community stakeholders, whose critical support and buy-in are being earned more easily and enthusiastically with the help of VR visualizations.

Long term, it’s easy to see how VR gamification could help usher in a new era of proactive instead of reactive design. “For us, it’s been a game changer,” Angeltveit concludes. “Delivering an interactive virtual-reality experience with our BIM models truly disrupts the status quo in a traditionally conservative industry.”

VR rendering of a signal layout on the Bergen Line. Courtesy of Norconsult AS/Bane NOR/Baezeni.

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