New York 811 Leaps into the Future

New York 811 Leaps into the Future

New York 811 is excited to introduce a leap into the future for utility damage prevention. In partnership with IPEG and UTTO, we are in the final stages of creating the Virtual Reality Excavator Simulator (VR-X SIM), an immersive virtual reality (VR) tool with the potential to revolutionize the way we think about damage prevention education, damage investigation, and how we train excavators. We firmly believe that virtual reality will play a key role in our collective mission to save lives and protect vital infrastructure by predicting and preventing utility strikes and the actions that cause them.


A little over a decade ago I had the idea of creating a sort of “Safety Town” for excavator training. Think of the miniature city environments set up to teach children the basics of pedestrian and bicycle safety, but larger and specialized for excavation professionals.

I knew this kind of hands-on, repeatable, nontheoretical training would be hugely beneficial in preventing damages long term, but the idea had some serious limitations. For one, the environment would be static, making it difficult to change the physical parameters and endless variables that present themselves on a real worksite. Two, a static environment makes “cheating” almost inevitable. When excavators can watch each other perform a task, they’re bound to replicate successful runs. What we needed was a system that allowed for variable, even spontaneous, scenarios to create realistic challenges.

Virtual reality technology recently caught up to the vision of an endlessly customizable learning environment for damage prevention. With the indispensable help and combined vision of UTTO and IPEG, the VR-X SIM came to be. We’ve been able to create virtual, immersive environments that realistically replicate real world excavation scenarios.

The aviation industry has used virtual reality and similar flight replicating technologies for years, now. Despite popular perception, flight simulation training is less about teaching a pilot which switches to flip and buttons to press and more about presenting pilots with unforeseen or unique scenarios to see how they react. Similarly, the VR-X SIM does not aspire to teach operators how to operate a backhoe, but to present the kind of real-world complications that have led to real world damages.


The VR-X SIM is a mobile unit housing a fully immersive replication of the excavation process. To educate on and evaluate the full excavation timeline, the VR-X SIM takes excavators through the entire process of a safe dig, even the steps that happen before the bucket hits ground.

  1. Getting the job
  2. Putting in the One Call notification,
  3. Automated Positive Response (APR)
  4. Having a virtual locate done
  5. Verifying locate marks based on APR

After the pre-excavation steps are taken, the excavator climbs into a replica backhoe inside the VR-X SIM and finally puts on a pair of VR goggles. Instantly, the excavator is transported to a virtual worksite that looks and feels like a real worksite in a real location. Each location and scenario is based on a real world equivalent. A virtual spotter joins the excavator in the simulation, also strapping on a pair of VR goggles and acting just as a spotter would onsite.

Inside the VR-X SIM cabin, the excavator finds a slew of sensors working to create a fully immersive and measurable “4D technology” experience. Eye tracking software keeps tabs on where both the spotter and the excavator are looking. The seat below the excavator shifts and rocks as they work. The bucket gives variable feedback based on soil conditions. The smell of gas can even be introduced to the cab to simulate a gas line leak or strike. In totality, combined with the excavator’s VR surroundings, the experience of the virtual cab feels realistic. More importantly, it elicits realistic reactions to excavation situations that can be studied and learned from.

The thoroughness in replicating the entire excavation process, along with the multitude of sensors, leaves us with countless data points to evaluate. To manage and make sense of the data, we worked with UTTO to develop a scorable system to get real quantitative data on damages.


As we tell people about the VR-X SIM and its capabilities there is a consistent temptation to imagine the machine purely as a training tool for excavators. It certainly does have that ability, but we think the most valuable, impactful results of will come in the form of data.

Data collection is a core factor, alongside training, in the future of damage prevention. It already plays a critical role in how we talk about and plan to prevent damages, through national damage databases like DIRT (Damage Information Reporting Tool). While there certainly is value in looking at collections of historical damages to find patterns, such reports are limited by the tendency of reports to focus on the party responsible more than the multitude of factors surrounding the accident. Further, such reports are limited to data from incidents that caused damages and are often based on self-reports. By introducing a spectrum of objective performance data, like the VR-X SIM can collect, you are able to paint a much more nuanced picture of excavation issues.

A virtual reality environment allows us to isolate single variables within the excavation process, something that just is not possible to pull from a report or to replicate in a physical training space. From the placement of marks to the placement of the facilities themselves, every factor of the process can be tweaked individually to study the effect on the excavators’ ability to perform the job safely. It is easy to see how profound this could be for the future of damage prevention strategies. The efficacy of new procedures, training, or equipment could be objectively measured, at scale, in a safe and controlled environment.


We believe that there is a fundamental flaw in the industry’s damage investigation process. All too often the investigation is focused on liability. Who is ultimately at fault? Which stakeholder or stakeholders made a mistake in process of the project? The goal of the process has become to find the party responsible, have them held responsible, then move on with faith that an internal investigation by the responsible party will follow.

Damage investigation should move beyond the question of “Who”, and move towards the more difficult, but vastly more useful, questions of “How” and “Why”. That is where the power of the kind of information the VR-X SIM is capable of collecting comes in. With the ability to change and evaluate the significance of single variables, we will have the chance to identify the root tendencies that cause damages.

Above all, we hope the VR-X SIM leads to a profound and necessary shift in the mindset of damage prevention, from a retrospective view centered on blame and liability, to a prospective view centered on optimization, prevention, and education.

Roger Sampson is Executive Director of New York 811. He can be reached at