Simulator training project progresses

SIMULATOR training using internet-based technology will become an important tool for exposing trainees to hazards in a virtual reality world without injury, writes Jim Galvin.*

Staff Reporter

The e-MINESAFE project is a collaborative effort between the Joint Coal Board, UNSW School of Mining Engineering and Mine Site Technologies and is concerned with developing virtual reality simulators to train personnel who operate and maintain equipment.

The project arose due a number of injuries and fatalities associated with the operation and maintenance of equipment. Consideration of these injuries and fatalities identified a need to encapsulate knowledge from multiple sites using information age technology.

It was proposed that enabling personnel to capture and learn from the experiences of others through interaction would provide a timely and effective method for training and up-skilling of maintenance and operator personnel. It would also enable competencies to be maintained at a relevant level.

The e-MINESAFE project is structured as a four stage scoping study and essentially began in June 2000 after a meeting to discuss the development of training simulators and a range of singular agenda items such as: the training of operators and maintenance workers; identification of risk-takers; mobility of contractor labour; use of safety management plans and safe operating procedures.

One of the conclusions of the meeting was that the real issue was not who would build the simulator so much as what would be the simulator’s ‘heart and mind’ and what criteria needed to be addressed for the simulator to be truly effective as a training tool?

Subsequently, UNSW research has shown that if e-MINESAFE Simulator Training and Assessment is to be effective as a training tool there is a need to network and integrate the various singular agenda items. Agreement has to be reached on what everyone wants. Different people from around the industry will expect different things from a simulator depending on their perspective of training requirements.

One of the problems highlighted is the large amount of documentation that a mine manager has to be aware of for safe operation of equipment. For example, to change the picks on a continuous miner can require the assimilation of approximately seven procedures. Clearly, this is not easy and what is urgently required is a method through which the appropriate information can be delivered directly to the operator or maintainer with a minimum of fuss.

It is envisaged that web-based technology such as internet web sites and chat rooms can deliver this capability through the development of a knowledge management system.

It is proposed that the use of a knowledge management system will put the single agendas into context by requiring active learning of all the elements: i.e. safety management plan, safe working procedures, effective communication, skills training, assessment and correction of risk takers.

It is expected that the use of knowledge management systems will also lead to improved safety processes and improved work processes which in turn will lead to improved health and safety performance, improved technical effectiveness and improved business performance. A knowledge management system will also provide a means of direct access to information to ‘refresh’ the operator’s memory.

Some of the requirements of the e-MINESAFE simulators already identified by the study are that the simulators should be readily accessible at mine-sites, and should be web based. They should also be realistic including real time simulations of mine machinery and environments. Ideally, they should be cost effective and small workforces must have ready access to this technology.

The simulators also need to be flexible to cater for all learning circumstances and essentially they should be modular this will allow easy upgrade and expansion as technology and machines improve with time. It is also important that the simulators provide a safe environment, insulated from mine production that is forgiving. This will provide a means to ‘expose’ trainees to hazards in a VR world without them being injured. Finally, training on the simulator needs to be to best practice SOP for uniform and consistent high standards - enhancing transportability of skills between mine-sites.

To integrate the available technologies and consider the methods available for simulator training the study has been broken down into four stages and stages one and two are currently underway.

In conclusion, the project has so far identified two major areas that need to be investigated thoroughly with possible emergence of a third.

The first is the identification investigation into the use of web-based technology to control and maintain the large amounts of legislative and general data now required to operate and maintain mining equipment safely.

The second is the critical evaluation of ‘off the shelf' Virtual Reality software. There are many VR programs on the market and the use of these as training tool needs to be fully evaluated.

The third and perhaps the most important aspect of the study is that the true effectiveness of VR training of personnel needs to be considered. Will the transfer of the skill-base and experience of the simulator be positive for trainee and instructor alike? If the wrong approach is taken toward simulator training there may be a negative transfer of skill.

* Jim Galvin is professor and head, School of Mining Engineering, University of New South Wales.