Development and implementation of emergent digital technologies in the design of the built environment.

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Natural and Built Environment


This project will explore the use of rapidly emerging and converging digital technologies, such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality (VR, AR, MR), structured light scanning and airborne drones, in the design of the built environment.
The commercial release of VR headsets has brought this technology mainstream, however application in a useful manner to designers has not been matured. The implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) has enhanced the construction industry through tightly managed design, construction and whole life management. As a result of BIM most construction projects now have an accurate 3D digital design and construction model. These will be suitable for use within a digital environment, and used as a tool for improving efficiency and whole life asset management. The mandatory government requirement for BIM has resulted in it becoming a core discipline within the university. These are key components in progressing towards sustainable future cities; a priority area for the university in tackling global challenges.
The project will develop human-model interaction through appropriate software. The team will develop interaction methods, enabling manipulation of the model within a VR environment, through programming of functions to handheld controllers. Creation and modification of structural models will be conducted collaboratively with traditional human input devices, whilst a user is present in the VR environment. Critical evaluation of design whilst in this environment will be conducted to gather data on the design process to identify time and cost savings relative to conventional design process. Distance collaboration will be investigated whereby the design team will be able to conduct meetings within a VR environment; the designers avatar will be visible to the other users within the environment. This would enhance the design experience where teams are spread across different geographical locations.
A further objective is the automatic creation of 3D environments from scanned data (lidar and structured light). Conversion of point cloud data to a 3D model for use by designers is currently limited; automatic meshing of point clouds produces inaccurate models. Many engineering objects are composed of simplistic shapes and surfaces, which should result in them being easily identified and modelled. The project will enable edges, surfaces and voids to be automatically identified and converted into accurate geometric models. This would be particularly useful for adaption and maintenance of existing structures. Advantages in lightweight scanning offer the potential for these technologies to be mounted on aerial drones. This will allow rapid inexpensive scanning of the built environment, particularly in inaccessible areas (structures at heights, underside of bridges), and the data then imported and converted into a 3D model. Material properties and boundary conditions can then be applied to enable rapid and accurate structural behaviour to be determined.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509541/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
1924291 Studentship EP/N509541/1 01/09/2017 28/02/2021 Aimee McCabe
Description As part of this award, the use of virtual reality (VR) as a design tool has been trialled on a number of participants who work throughout the engineering industry. These include civil and structural engineers, architects, technicians, lecturers and students. A test environment was created using 3D modelling software and the participants were able to view this model in VR. They were then asked a series of questions about the design, layout and scale and a questionnaire was completed with their answers. Some of the participants were also shown a set of 2D drawings from the design and asked the same questions. This allows for comparisons to be drawn on the difference between 2D and 3D design drawings and how they can affect a participant's design thought process. Overall, the tests allow conclusions to be reached on how different members of the same industry view design and how VR can have an effect on their spatial awareness, design technique and their ability to troubleshoot design errors.

Although the testing is still on going, early results show that 40% of respondents found that using VR gave them a better understanding of the layout of the design compared to using the 2D drawings. 90% of respondents were also able to better identify building errors while viewing the design in VR compared to 60% using 2D drawings. Over 88% found it easy or very easy to understand the structural layout using VR compared to 40% using 2D drawings. These initial findings show that using VR as a design tool can increase users understanding of a design on a first viewing and can be used as an additional tool for identifying building design errors at an early stage.
Exploitation Route These initial results show that VR is a capable and useful tool for inclusion in engineering design practice. It is envisaged that the engineering industry will benefit from the technology and the ability to view 3D models with ease and with minimum effort as a first response viewing tool within the design process. This should, in turn, allow for shorter design times and more efficient procedures, saving time and money over the lifetime of a project. It can also be used in a wider variety of settings throughout the industry such as marketing, communications and training.
This research also lends itself to being used as a learning tool in education settings. Students at an early stage in their engineering career can establish spatial awareness skills and grasp a firm understand of structural layout and load takedown.
Sectors Construction,Education

Description Drone pilot training has been completed and a number of drone surveys have been undertaken. Two surveys were conducted on the request of Department for Infrastructure (DFI) Roads who were investigating the stability of a number of various slopes along the North Coast of Northern Ireland. These surveys were conducted over a half day and 3D models have been produced using photogrammetry software. One of these slopes was of particular interest to the partner due to previous issues with material slippage onto the carriageway. The slope itself was reasonably steep and covered with dense vegetation which made it particularly difficult for staff to conduct a thorough survey of the area. A topography survey was provided by DFI Roads which allowed for conclusions to be drawn on the accuracy and reliability of using photogrammetry as a 3D modelling tool when the two data sets were aligned and cross checked. Feedback from DFI Roads estimates that a two-man team has taken three days in total to capture and extend survey data where necessary and about a week for one person to generate a series of drawings for design and reporting purposes. In comparison, the drone survey for this site lasted approximately half an hour with one pilot and one assistant. The model creation, post processing and drawing creation was estimated at half a day. This value can range based on computer ability. Taken as a whole, this equates to one full day work from initial site survey to completed drawings. Using drone technology and photogrammetry for this purpose would ensure that there would be a significant time saving in collecting and manipulating the data; even setting aside the health and safety risks associated with operatives working in such an environment. Due to the smaller scale of the drone surveys compared to traditional land surveys, cost savings. Further work with DFI Roads has been established and a number of new sites have been identified where photogrammetry can be used for asset management and as an additional 3D modelling tool. This will enable DFI Roads to expand their current dataset of particular sites and create new packages on sites that have otherwise been inaccessible.
Sector Construction,Transport