Search Ames


Text Size


March 14, 2002

Victoria Kushnir

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Phone: 650/604-0176 or 604-9000



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

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 José, Calif., was granted a license for further development of the platform. RCT now is 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 environment.

"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 José," 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."



- end -

text-only version of this release

To receive Ames news releases via e-mail, send an e-mail with the word "subscribe" in the subject line to To unsubscribe, send an e-mail to the same address with "unsubscribe" in the subject line.

NASA Image Policies