Creating virtual cities for engineering applications

Professor Chongmin Song, Director, Centre for Infrastructure Engineering and SafetySay you’re a city planner and are deciding how to zone an area for development. Or perhaps you’re a transport planner and need to know the impact of a potential new tunnel on the buildings above. Or maybe you’re a civil engineer and need accurate information about the impact a hurricane or earthquake will have on the building you’re designing.

In any of these situations, can you imagine how useful a complete and up-to-the-minute virtual picture of your city would be? And not just for visualisation purposes, this virtual city also includes all the numerical analysis needed for engineering design.

For Professor Chongming Song, Deputy Director in the Centre for Infrastructure Engineering and Safety, this is not just a nice idea, this is the mission he has set himself and the possibility his research has opened up.

“My vision is to provide the underpinning computational structural analysis needed to build a fully integrated virtual reality model of a city that includes all the physical and functional data,” he explains.

“This means it will include the structural information of all the buildings in the city as well as all the technical information from the ground below, such as the properties of the soil and rock.”

Song likens the potential impact of the virtual city to the impact of Google Maps. “Before Google Maps, if I wanted to go somewhere I needed a hard copy map and it might take a few minutes to work out the best route. Now, you can simply plug in point A and point B on your smartphone and it creates an instantaneous real-time, virtual, responsive route for you to follow,” he says.

“You’ve probably experienced how this has saved time and made your own life easier, but for industries like transportation, the cost savings run into millions of dollars in improved routing and fuel economies. With the virtual city, I am imagining similar time and cost savings for a wide variety of industries and government agencies.”

Virtual reality is increasingly being used in applications including entertainment, personnel training, architecture, design integration and construction to name a few and Song says it is so popular because it is visual and instructive. “You can see colour, layout and geometry etc, which is great, but current virtual reality methods all have a gap: they are not particularly useful for engineering design. You might have the geometry of a building, for example, but you’re unable to dimension the columns and floors. That is where my technology comes in.”

Although the virtual city Song has developed is just a proof-of-concept model at this stage he says he has already designed the technology needed to create it. If he can successfully apply it then everything required for analysis in the future would become automatic.

“Once we have a virtual analysis model we will be able to start doing things like inserting and taking away buildings and tunnels in a fully automated manner. That’s what really differentiates this – it’s incredibly practical and you will no longer need to create that physical model of the work you’re planning to do.”

Song explains that applications for this technology include structural analysis, building information modelling, sustainability assessment and life-cycle maintenance but, really, the only limit is the imagination and he believes there are multiple as yet unforeseen advantages to it.

“You can regard this virtual city like the virtual route I was talking about in Google Maps. If we can give industry the data, they will work out an amazing range of things to do with it,” he says.

“It’s difficult to predict which people might benefit from a new technology but I think the list would include civil engineering firms, government agencies and city planners. Looking to the distant future, I think it could also be applied in other disciplines of engineering such as biomedical engineering or mining.”

Song says the virtual city is a passion project that has developed organically in the wake of much of his research into computational mechanics (i.e. using computers to simulate the behaviour of anything to do with mechanics, including structural engineering, mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and other areas). But he says it has been made particularly possible by his creation of a novel numerical method called the scaled boundary finite element method.

“Many years of research has gradually led me to a realisation that the concept of the virtual city might work and now I’m very driven to achieving it,” he continues. “What fascinates me most at the moment is the potential of virtual engineering to improve the safety of structures while also saving time and money.”

Song’s research has attracted considerable acclaim. Since 2009, he has led seven Australian Research Council Discovery Projects and been involved in or led three Linkage Projects with an accumulated research budget of over $4.8M. He explains that a large part of this interest is because his work has demonstrable real-world applications. “We have collaborators all over the world, and many people are already using the methods we’ve discovered,” he says.

Song says that, ultimately, the tool he is thinking of is a big-picture future-thinking asset that he wants to help provide for the benefit of generations to come, but he is under no illusions as to the amount of collaboration required. “This will require a huge amount of data and cooperation but building that momentum is my next area of focus. I am now working hard to establish partnerships with government and industry to ensure virtual engineering becomes a reality.”

Professor Chongmin Song is actively seeking partners to explore the potential of virtual cities. If you are interested in finding out more please contact him: c.song@unsw.edu.au

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