Finnish utility Fortum on 28 August announced that it had developed the world's first fully dynamic and interactive virtual reality (VR) control room for training operators at its Loviisa nuclear power plant.
As well as being a tenth of the cost of a conventional simulator, Fortum said it also provides better training and can be used to validate new equipment further upstream. At Loviisa, 90% of the staff have already been trained in virtual reality and technology is now part of the basic curriculum. The VR development was undertaken by Fortum eSite, a subsidiary dedicated to industrial training in virtual reality, and supervised by Joakim Bergroth, a human factor specialist with 10 years of experience in the nuclear industry. He said such simulators can also be deployed easily (and cheaply) to other sites once designed.
Traditional simulators replicate some parts of the NPP and their construction costs millions of euros. Training courses are very rigorous and engineers review dozens of scenarios ranging from a minor incident (such as a leaky pipeline) to critical accidents requiring plant shutdown. The other major disadvantage of these simulators is that there are very few and they are very popular. Trainees have to wait weeks to access them and then have only a limited time.
Virtual reality headsets have changed this paradigm and their use is not limited to training. They can also be used to test and validate new equipment or procedures before they are implemented. Previously, validation took place in the last phase of a project and the slightest design error could prove costly and difficult to correct. According to Joakim Bergroth, in the worst case this could delay a project for a year. The ability to test changes very early, he said, saves many hours of work and hundreds of thousands of euros.
To develop its VR simulator, Fortum turned to Varjo, a Finnish start-up and developer of the Varjo VR-1, a high-resolution virtual reality headset designed exclusively for professional use. Its dual-screen system makes it possible to distinguish often illegible details from other headsets on the market. The high resolution makes it possible to more accurately represent the control panels, screens and other elements of the simulator.
The VR-1 headset developed by Varjo, launched in February, has a resolution of over 60 pixels per degree – the equivalent of 20/20 vision. It is designed for use in complex and demanding industries. It also comes with the world's most advanced integrated eye tracking technology and is compatible with the most popular 3D software tools. "With the Varjo VR-1, the visual fidelity of our virtual simulator is finally on a level that it should be," said Bergroth. "With VR-1, I was able to do things that I haven't been able to do before with any other off-the-shelf VR headset, such as read manuals and distinguish the smallest digits from the control room displays with ease. No other VR device can perform this kind of realism."
Bergroth added that with the help of VR, pre-validations and evaluations can be completed several months ahead of time. There is plenty of time to fix errors and findings before physical implementations. That saves an enormous amount of "time, money and grey hair," he said.
The realism of the VR simulator meant Fortum eSite was able to add elements to the training not previously possible. "We can add natural phenomena like fire, smoke, flood or earthquakes that are impossible to accomplish in a physical simulator or environment," Bergroth said. "With VR-1, it is possible to get the stress factors to a more realistic level, so that we can learn more about how well our human machine interfaces are working. Also the operators are more prepared if something like that would happen in real life.”