Virtual reality software, originally developed by NASA
engineers to help explore Mars, is now being used by a
leading petrochemical company to build and plan operations
for a complex industrial facility in ‘virtual world’

The Mars Map virtual reality software, developed at NASA Ames
Research Center in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley,
guided scientists through the agency’s very successful 1997
Mars Pathfinder mission. The tool allows mission scientists
and operations personnel to command and control remote
robotic spacecraft within a virtual environment.

Recently, Reality Capture Technologies (RCT), Inc. of San
Jose, Calif., was granted a license for further development
of the platform. RCT is now deploying this productivity- and
life-cycle information-management tool at a new Shell
Chemicals process plant currently under construction in
Geismar, La.

“Our product, based on NASA technology, will allow Shell to
create and validate start-up procedures, in addition to a
construction-feasibility review, and commence training in a
virtual environment months before the plant is fully built,”
said Reality Capture Technologies’ Chief Executive Officer
Dr. Ted Blackmon.

RCT’s software enables engineers to simulate a plant
environment in order to review its ‘constructability,’ a
process of evaluating the design, scheduling, cost and
resource planning to assess the possibility of implementing
such a design. The software also allows engineers to create
operating procedures, training and documentation. Similar to
pilot training on flight simulators, this technology enables
plant operators to get the training they need in a virtual

“What makes this software even more unique is how simple it
is,” said Blackmon. “It is almost like a video game where
you hold a joystick and walk around making sure that
everything is working right. Only in this case, you walk
around a not-yet-built Shell plant,” he added.

By fusing software systems used during the design stage with
those used during construction, the software provides virtual
access to a construction site and permits project personnel
to manage, assess, control and respond more effectively to
changes in the plant’s complex construction. Like space
explorers who use Mars Map to learn how to get around the Red
Planet, facility operators can use the new tool to learn how
to better ‘pilot’ the sophisticated and expensive industrial-
plant asset.

“Operators can now easily access and understand engineering
information that is critical to operations, which makes their
job much easier and safer,” said Blackmon.

An Ames science team originally developed Mars Map to create
a photographic-quality rendering system. Mars Map allowed
researchers to better understand the surface of Mars and
perform more effective science by providing an accurate
visual representation of the planetary terrain.

“The Mars Pathfinder mission was the first test of this new
class of photo-realistic, virtual-reality systems,” said Dr.
Michael Sims of Ames, who managed the Mars Map development
team. “Mars Map made a big difference in our understanding of
Mars during Pathfinder, and made us realize that this
technology could be an extremely powerful tool for the
rendering of the world.”

“RCT uniquely addresses the link between various stages of a
facility’s ‘life-cycle,’ leveraging information generated
during the design stage through construction and subsequently
into operations and maintenance,” said Blackmon. “By
leveraging advanced software, originally developed at NASA
for the space program, we are able to effectively ‘bridge the
islands of automation’ that exist in the
engineering/construction/operations industry today, and
interconnect traditionally stand-alone software systems into
an end-to-end distributed computing platform.”

“This company is a resident of the Ames Technology
Commercialization Center, a technology incubator located in
San Jose,” said Phil Herlth of the Ames Commercial Technology
Office. “Their commercial partnership with a major chemical
company is another example of a successful transfer of a
space technology that is now benefiting people here on earth.”