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Building virtual roads Virtual reality technology is set to cut the time and costs of road schemes, says Lisa Russell.

Two or three years could be cut from the project programme for new road schemes with the use of latest computer modelling techniques, a new study for the Highways Agency has concluded. Use of the same virtual reality techniques could also have benefits in improving and maintaining existing roads.

Savings in cost and time, and improvements in quality, consultation and environmental impact were identified, says director Richard Barlow of Reading University's advanced construction technology department.

The research project has developed a new process for route planning, road design and impact assessment, bringing together the latest software and hardware. The brief was to investigate how visualisation and VR could be used right through the process.

The 10 month project was carried out by a consortium of the University, WS Atkins and Taylor Woodrow Management. In essence, creating a virtual road is seen by the team as the next best thing to building a prototype. 'This approach takes our industry a major step forward,' says David Smith, responsible for business development at Taylor Woodrow Management. Findings could be applied by other clients and in other sectors, he adds.

Further work will look at how the findings could be implemented and how engineers would be asked to use the technology, says Highways Agency principal architect planner Jon Wallsgrove. Consultation on its introduction is planned for later this year. 'We are also looking at using the technology for maintaining and improving existing roads, for example adding a bus lane,' says Wallsgrove.

The study concluded that high levels of design information can now be included at an early stage. As the design is interactive, it can be continually refined, increasing both the design and cost certainty. And with the emphasis on interactive graphics the work can easily be demonstrated to a lay audience, helping in public consultation.

It would also fit with the Highways Agency's recent decision that public consultation information should eventually be made available over the Internet.

The three consortium members all have extensive experience of project modelling. In carrying out this study they have reviewed the procurement process for roads, and the range of software available. However, this is not an exercise in promoting a select group of software packages, stresses the team. 'We are giving the software industry a direction about how it can suit our needs,' says WS Atkins Transportation Engineering chief engineer Colin Munz.

Greenfield road sites are rare, says Munz, 'but we believe the benefits apply to road improvements through construction, sequencing, maintenance and management'. Visibility of signing could be checked out, for example.

Working on the A3 Milford bypass, the team started with digital maps, aerial photographs and so on to generate a three dimensional model.

Several potential routes can be modelled in sufficient detail, and viewed in different ways - 'flown', or shown as maps or photographs 'draped' over height information to show the landscape. Other data can be married in, such as land use or locations of listed buildings.

As more detailed surveys are carried out, this information can be added. And the visualisation software can increase the detail, render surfaces, add white lines, create videos and so on. With computers becoming ever faster, there is less need to trade off between detail and speed.

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