BGC Engineering's Ada augmented reality software transforms complex engineering data and plans into 3D models that can be viewed through Microsoft HoloLens goggles. Courtesy of BGC Engineering

Microsoft released the HoloLens goggles, the world’s first commercialized mixed reality holographic computer, in March 2016. Less than a year later, Vancouver-based BGC Engineering had already developed an applied earth sciences software platform for the HoloLens that it calls Ada, which transforms complex engineering data and plans into 3D models. The HoloLens, which has the capabilities for both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), is one of those technologies where seeing makes people believers, Matthew Lato, a geotechnical engineer with BGC, told CIM Magazine in September 2017. People just have to look through the HoloLens and they are convinced of its potential, he said. At the time, Lato also said he believed Ada-enabled HoloLenses could become a powerful communication tool for community engagement and consultation. A year later, both of Lato’s predictions have proven to be correct.

BGC has used Ada to help more than two dozen clients in transportation, utilities and mining. One of its most recent clients is Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), which is using the HoloLenses in its community consultations for the $900-million Giant Mine     Remediation Project in Yellowknife. The HoloLens, it turns out, is a tremendous interpreter of engineering plans. It helps bridge the communication gap between engineers and the people in communities affected by those plans who simply do not know the language and mediums used by engineers.

Despite the importance of community consultation and feedback to gain trust and buy-in, as well as efforts by engineers and experts to communicate their plans and data in everyday language, most people are not trained to read 2D maps or engineering drawings. Unlike engineers and technical experts, they cannot look at a topographical map on flat surfaces and digital screens and imagine it in a real-life context.

Think of an Ada-empowered HoloLens as enabling the average person with the visualization processes of an engineer’s brain. In fact, at BGC, the processing and interpretation of data and plans into 3D models begins with collaboration between engineers and earth scientists. “We use a multidisciplinary team of engineers, geoscientists and geomatics experts working with developers to build the models,” said Cassandra Koenig, a hydrogeologist at BGC who helped put together the proposal for the Giant Mine Remediation Project.

Seeing is believing

BGC’s involvement with the Giant Mine Remediation Project began last year when Chris MacInnis, then an engineering project manager at CIRNAC responsible for the mine’s underground stabilization and now acting director of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, went to a presentation at the ministry’s Ottawa offices. “It was about one of our other projects, the Faro Mine Remediation Project in the Yukon,” he said. “BGC was doing a bit of work on it and they invited some of the managers and directors to go in and see what they were doing. When I saw their demonstration of the HoloLens, I thought, ‘Wow, this is excellent. It’s a great tool.’ I just saw many advantages and applications.” Specifically, he envisioned the advantages of using Ada and the HoloLens in community consultations for the Giant Mine Remediation Project. The Giant mine is an abandoned gold mine within the city   boundaries of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. It is only a couple of kilometres away from residential areas. In 1999, the federal government became the custodian of the mine and took charge of managing its environmental liabilities. The most daunting challenge it faced was to ensure that 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, stored over decades by the mine operators in 14 sealed underground chambers and stopes some 80 to 250 feet (about 24 to 76 metres) beneath Giant’s surface, will not be released into the groundwater and pose risk to people, animals and plants.

After evaluating all the options, CIRNAC’s Giant Mine Remediation Project has developed a technically complex plan that involves dry freezing a block around the stopes and chambers containing the arsenic to ensure it remains contained and in this way make it possible for the Giant mine site to be remediated.

“We’ve always tried our best to bring the information to community stakeholders in a way that everyone can understand,” said MacInnis, “but it’s always a challenge.”

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One way to do this could be to take community members underground, but “it is a dangerous place that requires many health and safety protocols and personal protection,” said MacInnis.

“The HoloLens is a way that we are able to turn the underground into a visual you can use in an office and somebody can explain all the areas underground in the virtual world and it is completely safe,” he said. “When we say stope complex C5-09, for example, well, people don’t really have an idea of where that is when they are seeing slide after slide. With the HoloLens, they can. It really brings it into layman’s terms so they can understand what we are trying to do and where we are going.”

Community consultations

In September, the Giant Mine Remediation Project hosted a series of workshops in Yellowknife for community stakeholders. HoloLenses with Ada’s 3D models were made available to participants. The meetings were part of the regulatory consultations required before the project submits its “Type A” water licence application. “That’s the vehicle that will help us start the implementation of the final remediation in late 2020 or early 2021,” said MacInnis. “If people had questions and they couldn’t really formulate them or what part of the site they were talking about, they could put on the goggles and really hone in on exactly what they were referring to. Several people came up to me and said it’s a really cool thing to be able to see exactly what we were speaking about. They said it helped with visualization. Right there, that’s a huge positive for us.”

While the current 3D models BGC has developed for the Giant Mine Remediation Project so far are all augmented reality, which allows the people to see the 3D models without blocking out the environment they are standing in, BGC is currently also building a virtual reality model for the Giant Mine Remediation Project community consultations that will take place in March, said Lato. “People will be able to put on the HoloLens and find themselves standing in the remediated site, looking at the landscape as it will be 30 years from now and listening to the birds chirping,” he said.

As with most software platforms, Ada is a journey more than a destination and its capabilities continue to evolve and improve to include such things as animation. “We built another prototype for a different project that animates the path and speed of groundwater flow through the subsurface, as it would travel based on the permeability of the site’s geology,” said Koenig.

The Giant Mine Remediation Project meetings were not only a case study for tech-enabled community consultation, but also further confirmation of the value of the technology. “When our design engineers put [the headsets] on, they went off into a corner and we lost them for 15 or 20 minutes,” said CIRNAC’s MacInnis. “They were actually talking with each other about design, which is fantastic as they were seeing things they can’t see themselves on plans and drawings on the desk. I certainly feel this kind of technology has a role to play, not only in stakeholder engagement, but in design in-and-of itself. It has tremendous applications in my mind.”