Engineers are problem-solvers at heart. No matter the situation or the challenge, we’re always working to discover different, more efficient ways to approach a problem. As the many industries we touch shift and change, so do those challenges, giving rise to new issues and causing us to discover solutions we may never have thought of before.

The current COVID-19 crisis is one of these new challenges, forcing engineers and builders around the globe to look for better, safer solutions. Continuing to perform our work and make progress on job sites now means understanding how to complete the same tasks more safely, with fewer people or from remote locations. Fortunately, new technologies lend themselves to continued connectivity and allow us to strengthen our ability to perform the same work from an office or home.

Discovering Solutions

One such technology is augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), made possible by tools like the RealWear headset. This tool provides a camera, headphones and microphone mounted to a hard hat and is designed to be worn by a worker on a job site. When paired with a software such as VisualSpection, AR/VR technology offers a wide variety of uses, including recording videos and photos saved by GPS location; providing detailed information for inspections; and allowing more accurate information to be recorded, shared and understood more safely and efficiently.

The current world climate, however, presents us with the need to make significant use of another key feature AR/VR headsets can provide: the ability to livestream video of what the worker is seeing in real time while conferencing with distanced users. This video feed can be viewed by and discussed with multiple users from remote locations, decreasing the number of workers required at any particular location and reducing or eliminating possible exposure to pathogens while performing essential work.

Expanding Uses

Some jobs require specialized equipment be prefabricated off-site at various shops. This equipment must be inspected by the project owner and engineers to see that specifications are being accurately followed and that the equipment functions properly. Instead of sending an entire team out to a shop to inspect the equipment, one person using an AR/VR headset can view these materials or equipment in the shop while streaming the video feed to necessary team members for inspection.

This virtual process saves the team from having to document progress with other forms of virtual communication where the potential for human error, misunderstanding or miscommunication is high. Avoiding frustration and extended inspection schedules — while still practicing social distancing — means that work can continue to be done efficiently in the face of disruptions.

Overseeing certain areas of specialty work is another area where this technology can connect the employees needed on a job site with a specialty inspector or subject matter expert. Close viewing of work requiring inspection by certified workers for warranty can be done remotely via AR/VR. This can keep working moving forward under many circumstances and in many situations, especially work that must take place in a tight timeline, such as during scheduled or forced plant outages.

Overcoming Hurdles

There’s always a learning curve involved in deploying new technology, which can create roadblocks to implementation. But emerging challenges such as COVID-19 create an increased need for the use of new technologies to solve everyday problems. During this time, we can feel frustrated by what we don’t have available to us, or we can choose to focus on what we do have available to us, much like engineers have been doing for countless projects over centuries. For us in design and construction now, this means that understanding the benefits and how to effectively utilize AR/VR technology now can help project progression and success with increased certainty.

Having a growth mindset means being prepared to effectively take on the challenges our ever-changing industries present. AR/VR is just another tool in an already extensive tool belt engineers and builders can use to solve such complex problems. And in the face of COVID-19, this tool belt is only becoming more robust.

Sarah Darmitzel is an associate structural engineer and assistant project manager at Burns & McDonnell, where she’s been designing and building new and upgraded power generating facilities for 14 years in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.