RemSense is a Perth-based technology firm using ‘imagining technology’ to build lifelike representations of far-flung assets. Drew Turney reports.

You’ve landed back home after visiting your offshore oil rig when you realise you need to set up a meeting with that drilling rig assessor. Her email address is written on a Post-It Note and stuck to the PC monitor… back on the rig.

Wouldn’t it be handy to call up a remote view, virtually walking right up to your desk to read the Post-It Note just like you’re walking through a videogame environment?

That’s exactly what Perth company RemSense can deliver. After starting in 2012 as a drone operator for Western Australian resources clients, a decade of technical experience has opened the door to opportunities with a range of clients across industries from mining to airports and everything in between.

That’s why founder and CEO Steve Brown describes RemSense as a technology development company more than just an imaging business (more below).

But giving customers the best possible access to remote facilities is still a cornerstone of what he and his team do. Using magnetospheric or multispectral readings, LIDAR (light detection and ranging – a way of measuring distance by the time it takes a laser to reflect from a surface to a receiver) and photographic data, RemSense can capture and assemble a representation of a facility or property as large as hundreds of square kilometres right down to millimetre accuracy.

Drones are still a critical part of the puzzle like they were in a recent operation when water samples were required from the bottom of a disused mine pit. Instead of sending watercraft and crews to the remote (and expensive) site, an operator piloted a drone with an attached sampling probe across the water, a sensor reporting when it had reached the floor and could collect the sample.

But RemSense uses a comprehensive suite of sensing technologies to produce results including plenty of ground-based technologies as well.

Shifting landscape

Embracing whatever imaging tools are available – and being ready to adopt new ones that offer an advantage – has put Brown in a unique position to appreciate how the field has advanced.

“The resolution and the size of the sensor,” is how he responds when asked what he’s seen change the most in his time in the field. “Your new iPhone has as good a camera in it as you’d have found in a professional camera a few years ago. There have always been very high-resolution sensors and imaging cameras available, but they’ve traditionally been quite large.”

But innovation in the field has bought the size of imaging sensors down, so they’re far more versatile and – therefore – much more portable in a wider variety of applications.

In one example, the company used a specialised confined-spaces drone to inspect car dumpers on mine sites (the mechanism that rotates both the rail car and section of track together to unload the contents), reducing the need for human inspectors in such hazardous environments. In a previous era, it would have been the job of an extremely safety-conscious human operator with heavy photographic equipment.

But a corresponding increase in resolution size and decrease in physical footprint has meant a steep rise in data quality. You can now capture a higher number of data points for less cost, and we’ve crossed the threshold where a digital representation of a remote asset can be seen as clearly as is it in real life.

Being there

It’s all led to one of RemSense’s most compelling products, Virtual Plant – a 360º, high-resolution walkthrough of every inch of your far-flung facility, delivered to and viewable right on your laptop or device screen.

It’s not a 3D model like the type you see in the area of Building Information Management (BIM), it’s a completely photo-real digital twin, in full colour and detailed down to the very last rivet.

Virtual Plant was born from RemSense’s history with a Woodside/BHP partnership. When combined, the two resources giants had one of the most widely-spaced asset bases in Australian business history with plants, mine sites, refineries and transport hubs all under management.

“They wanted a system that allowed anyone in the company – from the receptionist to the CEO – be able to visit their assets anytime, any place on any approved advice,” Brown remembers.

On the surface, the benefits of such a system seem obvious. You’ll save the plane fare and two lost days just to retrieve a Post-It Note from your faraway computer screen (or even the 15 wasted minutes asking the plant manager to leave his/her duties and go over to your office to read it to you).

Then there’s safety. For obvious reasons, only approved staff can have access to mechanised or industrial environments, and the accreditations and training needed to onboard them are costly and time-consuming.

But Virtual Plant lets anyone ‘fly’ right through a facility – right there among the pipes, trucks, dust and chemicals – on a screen in front of them from the comfort of their office. Most of all there’s a deeper, more philosophical and less tangible benefit Brown calls ‘holistic’. “The more your staff understand about your business, the better the business is.”

New applications

But he happily admits Virtual Plant’s a bit like the iPhone in that users are coming up with behaviours even RemSense hadn’t thought of.

One example is integration with Woodside’s asset management system, an IBM product called Maximo which Brown says isn’t the easiest to navigate despite commanding around 30% of the market.

“Virtual Plant works so well with [asset management platforms] because again, we’re visual animals,” he says. “When you’re going through a plant visually you can zero in on one particular asset and say ‘I want all the maintenance data on that’. You click the image and it takes you straight to the relevant section in your asset maintenance data.”

Where doing so in ages past would mean switching back and forth between applications (or worse, a site worker on the phone trying to describe what he/she’s looking at), today it’s achievable through Virtual Plant’s connectivity with other platforms. What’s more, you don’t need the same investment in training for staff to navigate their way around a complex asset management system.

Because – and at the risk of being too repetitive – we’re not talking about a 3D wireframe model or even the characteristic alien-looking haze of a point cloud taken from LIDAR data. The Virtual Plant visual representation of your factory, marshalling yard or freight terminal is all built using high-resolution, 4K photographic data.

“In a lot of cases you have to know what you’re looking at to know how to interpret it,” Brown says of many other imaging technology outputs. “But if you look at the same thing on a high-resolution photograph, you’re going to know this is a gauge where you take a reading or that’s a valve where you turn it one way or another – even if you’re not mechanical.”

The art of collaboration

RemSense’s other major market presence is as a technology partner, or what Brown describes as innovation through engineering. It’s quite telling that at one point in the conversation Brown says he doesn’t generally talk about the software, he talks about the application. “We’re focused on creating a solution that solves a problem,” he adds.

All of this means that no matter how cool Virtual Plant (or any of its other tools) are, RemSense has an eye on the bigger prize – making their customers’ lives easier through whatever expertise they can offer.

Still, we’re talking about industries where the decision-makers and leaders are quite used to heavy industry and logistical assets. Surely they’re fairly up to date with automation and engineering tools and trends?

“If people from an oil and gas company sit down to discuss a problem, they’re all from oil and gas,” Brown says. “They don’t know anything about aviation or ports. They’ll look for a solution from oil and gas, and there might not always be one.”

The engineering and technology development team at RemSense have come from automotive, subsea, telecommunications and beyond. Such varied backgrounds mean the team isn’t constrained by what they ‘know’, bringing solutions from countless other fields to the table to find the best way forward. “We have the right culture, and I think it combines with the experience of the people to become critical for an innovation company,” Brown says.

When RemSense attacks a technology problem for a client, the workflow is quite structured, but Brown says that actually gives the team more freedom to discover what does and doesn’t work in close collaboration with the client.

Often, they arrive at the solution not through reinventing the wheel but by repurposing something that already exists – engineering as systems management, rather than just invention.

“We pivot during development quite often and come to an entirely different solution than we imagined because there was a better way of doing it all along,” Brown reports. “In a lot of cases, there’s already a solution out there in a different form or another industry. If we can find something we can apply to a client’s need off the shelf that’s exactly what we do.”

Delivering a seamless, high-resolution representation of your assets and helping you make them better through engineering innovation are the twin pillars keeping RemSense at the top of its game, and both their technology and practices are ensuring this decade-old player has a bright future yet.