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How VR is transforming training in underground construction

Incorporating VR into training adds a heightened sense of realism and immersion, allowing trainees to practice complex tasks

Trainees use VR to help with underground construction training
Ditch Witch's 2D HDD simulator curriculum is divided into three progressive lessons. Ditch Witch

Contractors are under pressure to tackle the rising demand for underground construction projects amidst a slew of challenges such as compact job sites, complex underground networks, and a persistent labour shortage. Ensuring operators are well versed in their equipment is more crucial than ever for safe and efficient project completion.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) know this and are taking actions like developing innovative and adaptable training solutions that engage the next generation of workers. With flexible training options already in place – such as online training platforms, simulators, instructor-led courses, and hands-on job training – OEMs are turning to technology to help prepare operators for the demands of the job site. One technology in particular is bringing training into a new era: virtual reality (VR).

VR provides an innovative way to engage and upskill new workers. By simulating 3D underground environments, VR allows trainees to gain hands-on experience safely and efficiently. Using VR, trainees can apply textbook knowledge in lifelike scenarios before ever stepping foot on a job site and operating expensive and often intricate machinery.

From operating HDD equipment to navigating complex job site conditions, operators can use VR to gain the skills, muscle memory, and confidence they need for real-world jobs.

Build knowledge in a safe environment

OEMs like Ditch Witch and Subsite have been using simulation in training for years. For example, Ditch Witch has a 2D HDD simulator curriculum that is divided into three progressive lessons. The first lesson introduces the basics of operating a directional drill in an open space, focusing on pipe handling and drilling. The second lesson focuses on navigating tighter spaces in residential areas, emphasizing utility awareness. The third lesson simulates drilling under a bustling four-lane highway and teaches trainees back-reaming best practices.

However, the underground construction industry, with its diverse skill requirements and demanding backlog of work, today needs a more comprehensive training solution that equips contractors with the necessary expertise to operate a safe job site.

Operating HDD equipment and their guidance systems can be daunting and intimidating for beginners. Incorporating VR into training adds a heightened sense of realism and immersion, allowing trainees to practice complex tasks while eliminating the fear of costly mistakes. This can save contractors from potentially significant equipment downtime and project delays. And it can give workers a broad range of machine and tool experiences that they would typically encounter day-to-day on the job site.

Additionally, with safety top of mind, VR training alleviates worries about injuries or damaging valuable machinery and existing underground infrastructure during initial attempts. In the virtual world, mistakes become learning opportunities instead of costly equipment damage or job site catastrophes. Trainees can hone their skills in precise machine operation and techniques within a safe, simulated environment before they transition to real-world tasks. 

VR provides an innovative way to engage and upskill new workers. Ditch Witch

Gamify training for young workers

VR gives the underground construction industry a powerful tool to engage with and appeal to the highly sought after next generation of workers.

Immersive and interactive, VR resonates with young professionals who grew up in a world of video games, including VR video games. The technology also offers digital-first experiences that appeal to tech-savvy professionals. This modern approach to training can help attract new operators to help fill the talent pipeline.

Gamification transforms training from routine to revolutionary. Trainees are immersed in 3D underground environments where they can see firsthand the interplay of utilities and drilling operations. Through VR training with Subsite's Marksman Guidance System, operators can virtually see beneath the ground to assist navigation through utility-laden areas in today's neighborhood rights of way. This not only equips them with practical skills but also adds fun into their learning journey.

However, VR is not a catch-all solution. Instructor-led courses bridge the gap between virtual learning and practical application, helping get VR-trained operators ready for the job site. The optimal use of VR lies within a blended training approach, which complements traditional methods, preparing a new generation of professionals for the demands of the real world.

Additionally, VR is not just for the novice. Ongoing employee development also benefits from VR's versatility. Seasoned operators can leverage VR to refresh their skills or cross-train on new equipment, maximizing job site efficiencies.

Strengthen skillsets with virtual lessons

Ditch Witch introduced its latest training platform for HDD guidance in 2022 and has developed multiple lessons for it. Designed in a trailer to make VR training accessible and mobile for the OEM, the lessons mimic the hands-on work of underground construction. The Subsite Marksman VR lessons coupled with Ditch Witch's HDD simulator – featuring actual drilling console controls – provide operators with a diverse skill set.

While drilling is traditionally easier to teach, tracking the drill head and helping guide the driller presents a unique set of challenges. The Subsite Marksman VR tackles this by visualizing underground utilities and equipment working in tandem, enhancing training effectiveness.

HDD guidance training is split into two lessons: the first covers equipment set-up and calibration of a tracker, which has proven to be one of the most difficult job site tasks. The second focuses on beacon tracking and its critical role in underground construction and directional drilling. An upcoming third lesson will teach operators how to run a drill and tracker simultaneously, mimicking a real-world application to set up trainees for success.

The training blends text instruction and audio instructions and is currently available in Spanish, English, and German. Operators can learn more about these trainings by reaching out to their local Ditch Witch dealer.

Transforming training and more

Today, VR is bringing tremendous value to underground construction by serving as a compelling recruitment tool and a means for operators to build and refine their skills. Still, this is only scratching the surface in terms of what the technology can do.

OEMs will continue to broaden VR's applications, integrating diverse equipment to streamline training, attract new talent, and improve job site safety. As VR becomes more prevalent, it has the potential to bridge the skills gap, mitigate workforce shortages, and shape the underground construction industry of the future.

Nicholas Smith is a product trainer with Ditch Witch.

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1959 W. Fir Ave.
P.O. Box 66
Perry, OK
US, 73077-0066


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1950 W. Fir Ave
Perry, OK
US, 73077


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