FEATURE: VR excavator training

By: Evarn Covich

Presented by
  • Earthmovers & Exacavators

For more than 25 years Perth-based Immersive Technologies has been designing and building heavy machinery simulators for the mining sector around the globe to help train and upskill operators in a safe, controlled environment.

This ‘virtual reality’ method eliminates the risk of damaging machinery and removes the added pressure that comes with operating in what can usually be fast paced and, at times, hectic work areas.

I’ve had 24 years in civil construction and six-and-a-half years in mining and things have changed a lot in terms of technology in that time.

I was given the opportunity in late 2017 to try one of these units out when I participated in a continuous improvement initiative program at a coal mine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin.

The high-spec site simulator was large and included wrap-around projection screens with an operator work station that is modelled from the actual excavator itself and mounted on a motion base for added authenticity – all housed in a modified 20-foot shipping container.

I was part of a training team tasked with trying to safely squeeze a few extra cubic metres per hour out of some already experienced and capable digger operators on the site.

The experience quickly opened my eyes to the benefits and possibilities that could result from this type of virtual training, so I naturally jumped at the chance when I was sent an offer to take a look at a virtual reality simulator setup.

This specific simulator was designed and produced by Immersive Technologies in conjunction with Komatsu encompassing a PC300-8 excavator, and is aimed at the civil and construction industries.

VR-excavator-training

The Set Up

We entered the training room at the Komatsu Training Academy’s Technical Education Centre located in Sherwood, Brisbane, and were greeted with what looked to be a pretty standard desktop PC setup with the addition of a couple of motion sensors sitting on each side of the screen.

Two excavator control levers were mounted to the desktop by way of screw-on brackets located on the underside of the grips along with travel foot pedals located on the floor.

This setup has been made more cost-effective through the use of a virtual reality headset designed with portability as a key function to fit in a specially designed rugged case for easy transportation. This allows customers to easily bring the training to where it is required the most.

 It is a different approach to the high-fidelity simulators Immersive Technologies has developed over the years for the mining industry.

VR-excavator-training

In The Seat

After a short stint in the seat to get a feel for the system myself, I handed over the controls to our guinea pig for the day, my 16-year-old son Caleb, who was somewhat annoyed at being dragged away from his gaming computer at home for a bit of ‘work experience’.

His persona soon changed when he realised that the job entailed playing a type of computer game anyway.

Komatsu’s technical capability manager for the Queensland region, Daniel Stegman, proceeded to help Caleb fit the VR headset and then guided him through the operational aspects of the system before setting up the first of many tasks he would have to perform on the day.

The sim is conducive to training operators with absolutely no experience at all through to upskilling already experienced people.

Caleb started from the very beginning, where the program teaches each individual movement of the control levers.

The operator is instructed to line their bucket up with another ghost bucket on the screen in order to achieve success and move on to the next task.

We were able to watch Caleb’s progress on the computer monitor as he worked his way through the tasks provided, and with each new task we were able to see a slight improvement as he negotiated his way along.

He was free to go back and repeat tasks at any time if he was not happy with the result or his own performance, which he utilised a couple of times.

By the time he made his way through to loading his first truck, he was starting to swing the machine with a bit of speed and fluency. 

The assessment stage is where you have to put everything you have learned into practice. You are measured through different parameters. These include:

• Time (the overall time it takes to complete the assessment)

• Accuracy (how precise you are while digging as well as where dirt is placed either on the ground or in a truck – so spillage is not good for the score)

• Damage (another that can hamper your score if you hit trucks or swing your bucket too vigorously into the spoil pile).

The truck-loading assessment also scores you on your load distribution along with optimum payload weight which all results in a score given out of 100 for each assessment.

VR-excavator-training

Apprehension

I would sometimes hear a couple of statements about machinery simulators when I was doing my mine training many years ago.  

One was: "They make me dizzy!"

Unfortunately, a small number of people may experience a little vertigo or dizziness while operating in a simulator and I feel that the full immersion of the VR headset could slightly amplify this feeling a touch.

However, the simulator itself actually suggests the operator takes a break after 15 minutes of continuous use, which some operators would be wise to utilise.

A small break away from this virtual world can do wonders when it comes to settling the brain.

"It’s not a real digger!" was probably the most frequent statement I encountered.

This usually emanated from the mouths of the self-proclaimed top operators that hadn’t performed as well as some of their peers in the assessment stage.

My answer to them would be: "Every digger is different; all the other operators had to drive the same machine and dig the same dirt, so maybe some practices or techniques may be in need of revising."

The thing is, operating in a simulated environment is just that: a simulated environment!

It’s never going to feel exactly the same as operating a real machine in a real environment, so small operational and visual adjustments are required to be made – as you would when operating any unfamiliar machine for the first time.

VR-excavator-training

Safety

These VR simulator units open up a whole new realm of possibilities to construction and earthmoving companies, along with RTOs (registered training organisations) with a straightforward approach that makes them a lot more affordable to these industries.

They now have the opportunity to train brand-new operators from scratch without the fear of damaging people and equipment, worrying about fuel burn or even fretting over lost production time. 

Lost production time and fuel burn probably go somewhat hand in hand when it comes to training new operators.

It’s not often you get a job site where you can train a new operator without some sort of added pressure on the trainee due to the need to keep the job moving while they try to come to grips with working in a new environment and learning new controls and functions.

Fuel burn will still stay much the same even though machine production will drop away in the short term, as most green operators are usually encouraged to work at a lower engine speed until they get used to a machine.

 However, this probably still equates to more burn per production hour than having an experienced operator doing the job fluently at full revs.

Safety, as we all know, is definitely the biggest player in any industry these days and you won’t find many safer places to train than sitting at an office desk learning to drive a machine.

As part of learning to operate an excavator, you can practice your skills without fear of injuring someone or wrecking something, all while digging as many holes as you want without fear of getting a boot up the backside from the boss for messing things up.

VR-excavator-training

Lowdown

The fact that you are sitting in an office chair pulling on a couple of levers mounted to a computer desk gives the feeling that you are actually playing a computer game and well…you are!

The difference is that the skills learned playing this game can be taken and used in the real world behind the controls of a real excavator.

No, it’s not going to feel exactly the same when you finally get to sit in the seat of a real machine, but when you do, you will already have a good grasp on what’s needed to be done to operate the machine in a safe and effective manner.

I had a small case study of my own without even knowing it.

I was tasked with training four green excavator operators from scratch on the aforementioned mine site.

None had operated excavators before, but I can tell you from my own experience that the two who had the opportunity to spend some hours on the simulator before getting into a real machine were in a far more advanced state than their counterparts.

Both needed less coaching before they were in a position to safely and competently operate the machines on their own.

I would say, at a conservative guess, that a quarter to a third of the overall training time was shaved off utilising this practice.

This in itself would equate to significant savings – not only in a mining environment but also in the construction and civil sectors as well.

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As for Caleb, well, he worked his way through the program. Although he did not have enough time to complete the full assessment, he scored a very respectable 92 per cent on the truck-loading assessment and showed good promise with his operating ability.

He enjoyed his time at the controls and said that it was easy to negotiate his way through the different tasks with the help of the audio tutor, which delivers instruction to the operator throughout the program and also negates the need of having an actual trainer watching over their shoulder as they work along.

He also mentioned that being able to go back and repeat tasks until he was comfortable or happy with the outcome definitely helped when it came to assessment time.

At the moment there is a big upturn going on – not just in mining but also the civil and construction industries, which is starting to result in a major shortage of operators around the country, for a broad range of equipment.

Immersive Technologies and Komatsu have teamed up to address this emerging problem by developing a system that is not only affordable to a lot of construction and civil companies but also easily transported and can be set up almost anywhere in less than 20 minutes.

Komatsu Training Academy is also looking at offering a wheel loader sim, with other machines to be rolled out over the course of time.

I feel that this is the future of operator training and, although it’s not exactly the same as the real thing, it makes for a good template.

Not only is it safe but there is no machinery wear and tear or fuel burn, and there are no worries when it comes to hampering production or even just stuffing a job up and getting it wrong.

I think this technology could be well utilised not only by companies wanting to upskill staff but also by members of the general public who may be curious as to whether they have what it takes in order to pursue a career as a machinery operator – but would never otherwise be presented with the opportunity.

 

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