VR control rooms: Redefining nuclear control room training
Some people think we live in a simulation. AV technology could turn that theory into something of a reality in the changing world of control rooms says Reece Webb.
The Loviisa nuclear power plant in Finland is installing its own virtual control room on site at the plant, using virtual reality technology to train its operators in situations which previously were impossible to practise for.
The nuclear industry joins a growing list of adoptees of virtual reality for training purposes, with emergency service providers, medical professionals and universities branching out to the emerging technology to train employees in ways which were previously impossible.
At Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, the Finnish energy company Fortum is installing its own dedicated virtual reality control room with VR headset manufacturer Varjo’s VR1 headset as the centrepiece of the training experience. The VR1 is a “human eye resolution” headset with integrated eye tracker technology that has seen use with leading auto manufacturers including Audi and Volvo for design and testing applications.
Joakim Bergroth, a human factor engineering expert at Fortum is overseeing the implementation of the world’s first interactive virtual control room at Loviisa.
Bergroth has over 10 years’ experience in the nuclear industry with Fortum,focused on developing and thinking of new use cases and integrating different technologies to improve the lives of plant operators.
In the nuclear industry, pre-testing forms a central pillar of the safe production of nuclear energy as Bergroth explained: “When something is changing in the control room, you need to validate it before you can install it on site and take it into production use.
Usually, this validation is done very late in refurbishment projects because plans and designs first need to be approved and only after that they can be installed on the physical simulator for validations.
“Very often, you do find some design errors or something that needs to be improved in the validations on the physical simulator. This means that you have to do a redesign, approve it, and do installations again on the physical simulator. We can now get rid of that problem by quickly identifying errors in the VR simulation which gives us plenty of time to fix the errors and improve the design before we even install anything on the physical simulator.”
Bergroth has been experimenting with the implementation of VR environments for control room and field operator training for more than five years, initially using Oculus Rift headsets with high-spec desktop PC’s to run VR environments.
Nowadays,businesses can invest in high-spec gaming laptops to run detailed VR environments, making VR systems more attractive in commercial spaces as they are cheaper and easier to use. Bergroth explained: “At the minimum, all you need is a gaming laptop and VR headset and you’re ready to go. Running virtual machines that simulate the power plant process simultaneously on the gaming laptop where the VR environment is run, is also not a problem anymore.
“One compromise we had to make with older hardware was the resolution that the operators experienced through the headsets. They needed to lean forward if they wanted to see the smallest digits on the display screens clearly or when they picked up a procedure,they needed to set it unnaturally close to their face to be able to read something. Now this Varjo headset has human eye resolution so we don‘t need to compromise on resolution anymore.”
"You can do everything you can do in real life in a very realistic way,similar to today’s video games,because the VR environments are built on top of a game engine" - Joakim Bergroth, FortumThe virtual reality control room allows operators and engineers to implement new test designs and procedures on the fly without the hassle of physical instalments,eliminating the need to reserve a physical control room simulator and crews which can be a resource heavy process.
This can be seen as a wider trend across high risk training applications around the world such as fire forensics and surgery instructors who are turning to virtual training applications due to the high cost and intense resource consumption of physical simulation.
Bergroth: “Typically, nuclear power plants do not have anything else as a physical simulator except for the main control room. In VR they can make realistic emergency control rooms, auxiliary control rooms, accident management control rooms or even local control posts and other areas relevant to the field operator training. Most of these are really concrete things that we haven’t been able to do before because there haven’t been any facilities for this kind of training.
“We can not only simulate the power plant process, but also fire smoke and earthquakes; you can do everything that you can do in real life in a very realistic way,similar to today’s video games,because the VR environments are built on top of a game engine and have all the physics models,water and particle physics that make the experience quite realistic.”
Taking the operator out of a real control room simulator and immersing the user into an unrestricted VR environment allows the operators at Loviisa to practice and simulate real world critical situations in a realistic way.Operators are able to traverse areas of the plant in a training scenario they would never be able to physically visualise and experience without VR.
"I’m really hoping and expecting us to adopt VR and AR as an essential part of the training process." - Joakim Bergroth, FortumBergroth: “We have used a ‘loss of main control room accident’simulation, where we can put a fire in the control room. The room starts to fill with smoke and then the operators have to act accordingly and do what the procedure says. This is one example where the operators were introduced to elements they hadn’t experienced before in training, in this case smoke in the control room and traversing from the main control room to the auxiliary control room or emergency control room.
“They actually open the doors in VR and walk the corridors to the secondary control room and continue operations from there.We get insights of how long it takes for them to walk from point A to point B, but most importantly it provides a more realistic training experience.There is a real plant simulator (in Loviisa’s case Apros) connected to these VR environments, it’s full scope and full scale.”
Bergroth adds: “The resolution increase with VR1 is quite huge,and we’re hoping to get an even more realistic experience in the VR environment.
The VR1 also has integrated eye tracking and we have already lined up some good use cases for it which will be very beneficial. The eyeball tracking is useful for the analytics side. As an example, often the trainers don’t know what procedure the operators are using, not to mention what line the user is reading on the procedure in a specific scenario on a physical simulator so this tracking will give us insight of that also.”
The implementation of the current system is merely the first step towards comprehensive virtual simulation training as Bergroth explained: “Loviisa now has a dedicated room reserved for VR training. We have lined up other potential features for this evaluation or training run for the setup using the VR1 with other sensors such as heartbeat sensors or monitoring how much the operator sweats. We can gain more insightful information about how the human machine interfaces work and how workers operate and feel in different scenarios.”
Bergroth closes: “We are going full speed ahead. I’m really hoping and expecting us to adopt VR and AR as an essential part of the training process.
“Approximately 90% of the plant‘s personnel have already done training in VR, with very positive feedback. It’s a very big number and it shows us how the Loviisa plant sees the benefits of what VR can offer them.”