Can you imagine how useful a fully integrated Google-Earth style tool would be for the design, operation and maintenance of a city’s infrastructure? One that not only gives an up-to-the-minute picture of the city for visualisation purposes, but also features all the numerical analysis needed for engineering design?
City planners could use it to decide how to zone an area for development. Transport planners could use it to determine how a tunnel will impact the buildings above. Civil engineers could use it to hurricane-proof the building they are designing.
For Professor Chongmin Song, Director of UNSW’s Centre for Infrastructure Engineering and Safety, this is not just a pie-in-the-sky 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 method needed to automatically perform the engineering analysis of a fully-integrated virtual reality model of a city. This includes all the structural information for the buildings and the technical properties of the soil and rock below,” he explains.
Song likens the potential impact of the virtual city to the impact of Google Maps. “I’m sure you’ve experienced personally how Google Maps has saved time and made your life easier, but for industries like transportation, the cost savings have run into millions of dollars. I can imagine similar benefits for a wide variety of industries and government agencies with the virtual city I’m working to achieve,” he notes.
Although the virtual city is still at the proof-of-concept stage, Song 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 you build a virtual model from various sources such as computer-aided-design and digital imaging, etc., you will be able to start doing things like inserting and taking away buildings and tunnels and performing the structural analysis in a fully automated manner. That’s what really differentiates this – it’s incredibly practical and will obliterate the need to create a physical model of the work you’re planning to do,” he contends.
Song says the virtual city is a passion project that developed organically in the wake of his research into computational mechanics. He says it has all been made possible by his creation of a novel numerical method called the Scaled Boundary Finite Element Method.
In addition to the virtual city project, Song is starting to apply the method to other applications which are being increasingly used in mechanical engineering, materials science and biomedical engineering.
“We are using it to create a fully automatic engineering analysis of digital images, 3D printing models and virtual reality models with potential applications and impacts ranging from the analysis/retrofitting of historical structures, to mining and tunnelling, to patient-specific simulations for surgical operations,” Song explains.
He gives an example of a patient who needs a heart bypass operation. “Using a CT scan or ultrasound to create a computer model, the surgeon will be able to simulate different options and come up with the best way to perform the bypass,” he explains.
In comparison to conventional technology, which can typically take days or weeks to create a model and perform a new analysis, Song says his numerical method can do this automatically, in nearly real time.
Another exciting area for this technology is 3D printing for civil engineering. “There is widespread agreement that 3D printing will revolutionise how we construct buildings. Using our method, the modelling can be fully automatic and fast, saving money and creating a safer product.”
Song’s research has attracted considerable acclaim. Since 2009, he has led eight Australian Research Council Discovery Projects and has been involved in or led three Linkage Projects with an accumulated research budget of over $5.2M as well as several industry sponsored research projects. 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 in large-scale engineering projects,” he says.
Ultimately, the tools he is thinking of are big-picture future-thinking assets 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.
“Creating the virtual city, in particular, will require a huge amount of data and cooperation. But I am working hard to establish partnerships with government and industry to ensure virtual engineering becomes a reality.”
Professor Song is actively seeking partners in construction, mining, advanced materials and biomedical engineering to explore the potential of his technology. He is also running an annual two-day workshop series on the scaled boundary finite element method. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org