The increased popularity and availability of virtual reality technology has caught the attention of crane manufacturers and training companies, with some incorporating it into their training simulators.

At Bauma 2016, Liebherr presented its enhanced LiSIM training simulators, which enable trainees to drive tower cranes, duty cycle crawler cranes, crawler cranes up to 300t and deep foundation machines in a virtual environment.

With the Liebherr simulator for tower cranes, the laminated panes of the crane cab form a projection area in conjunction with virtual reality glasses. Using this technology the user also sees the interior of the cab and himself, in addition to a virtual construction site.

The real crane signals generated at the control stand are processed and visualised in an original switch cabinet, while the movements are transferred through a motion platform to the cab.

Crane behaviour in wind, fog, and rain as well as at different times of the day and night can be simulated.

“In realistic driving conditions technicians learn, for example, about the so-called teach-in process, the programming of a workspace boundary as well as the checking of the overload,” the company says.

The training simulators for crawler cranes and deep foundation machines are available in three different configurations: integrated in a classroom, as a space-saving cab solution or in an easy-to-transport container. Each of these models is equipped with a multifunctional instructor station for the trainer.

Terex Cranes also displayed a virtual reality system for training crane operators and signalmen at Bauma, the Simulift, which was designed by the manufacturer in partnership with Swedish company Oryx Simulations.

Visitors had the chance to jump in the “cab” and virtually operate a Demag AC 250-5 in a pick and placement utilising four screen displays that simulated the windows of the crane cab.

Jürgen Christmann, manager service training at Terex Cranes says: “When you sit on the chair the only thing that is missing is the metal around it, everything else is the same as in real life. It has the real buttons, joystick, seat and paddles, so the level of detail is very high. Crane operators with a lot of experience who saw it at Bauma were impressed with how close it comes to reality.”

The simulator has a motion platform, which gives the user the feeling of motion and velocity. It can simulate rain, snow, fog and wind. Christmann says the company incorporated the wind effect on loads and load capacity into the training.

At the moment the simulator is available for Terex Cranes in-house training but Christmann says the next simulator developed will be a container version, which could be shipped to customers, dealers and fairs.

“The next step is to have it a bit more mobile, at the moment it is quite stationary. To ship it around is always a lot of work, as we have to disassemble and assemble it,” he says.

Christmann says there are various benefits from using a virtual reality simulator, with the principal one being safety.

“You can train people on a lot of things before going to the real crane. It is a safe environment as trainees do not have to stand on the crane, or in front of the cabin. We can also practice things we don’t want to practice on the crane,” he says.

He adds that crane availability is always an issue when it comes to training, and this problem is solved trough the use of this system.

It can be a very cost-effective way of training crane operators, Christmann says: “The crane is expensive to rent for an hour. By teaching basic things on a simulator we save on fuel consumption, as not a single litre of fuel is burnt.”

In addition, he says damages which can occur during basic training can be avoided. The good thing is that if you damage something you can press the reset button.”

At the moment there is a Simulift in Brazil and another one will be based in Singapore after Bauma in China, where it will be showcased. Christmann tells Cranes Today that the company plans to develop a simulator for other models.

“The next step is one for the Demag AC 1000-9 or AC 700-9 and the step after that would be crawler cranes.”

Development process

Apart from OEMs, crane and rigging training provider Industrial Training International (ITI) has also been interested in this technology.

It is currently developing a virtual reality crane simulator for crane operations and rigging activities in partnership with Serious Labs, a Canadian company that previously developed simulators for the construction, mining and energy sectors.

Zack Parnell, president at ITI, says the company had a customer meeting at Mammoet’s US headquarters in Houston, where it brought a virtual reality aerial work platform (AWP) simulator developed by United Rentals’ training division United Academy and Serious Labs. 20 ITI customers had the opportunity to use this simulator and share their thoughts about a potential virtual reality crane simulator.

Keith Anderson, chief rigging engineer for Bechtel, used the United Academy’s VR AWP simulator during this meeting.

Anderson comments: “The use of VR technology in crane simulators is a really interesting development that could potentially be of considerable benefit in the training and evaluation of crane operators. This approach has the prospect of providing cost-effective “virtual”, realistic, seat time to a broader spectrum of people, on demand, regardless of location.

“Used judiciously it should be a useful adjunct to traditional seat time and bring safety and efficiency gains. If it works out as well as the AWP simulator it will be a great tool.”

Parnell says the customers were excited with the experience, and ITI approved the capital budget to develop the virtual reality crane simulator with Serious Labs in the following weeks.

He says that the company is holding customer advisory meetings periodically, where it shares ideas about the simulators and receives feedback.

“There are several crane experts in the room, suggesting a number of experiences they would want the simulator to have and bringing up a lot of issues. A few of the advisors already own simulators and have been sharing how they would like the experience improved,” says Parnell.

Jim Colvin, CEO of Serious Labs, says the first step in the process of developing the VR crane simulator is to understand the key learning objectives. The company will then work with ITI to develop the curriculum.

Colvin likens the design of a simulator to making a movie from a book, and says: “We take the training material companies traditionally use, what we would call ‘analog content’, and then story board that into what would be visually engaging for the learner in a virtual reality setting.

“We then identify the key areas which make the experience as real and immersive as possible. Our engineers and programmers will develop the physics, working with the manufacturers and ITI. We will be constantly working with the ITI technical advisory group to make sure we are staying as true to the experience as possible and that the learning objectives are met.”

Serious Labs programmers will then be programming into a high-end graphics computer, similar technology to the one AAA video game developers work with, and then connect it to a virtual reality engine. The company is technology agnostic and uses both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive goggles.

“The final step is to integrate the software with our universal motion base, a platform that physically moves the trainee and reinforces the virtual experience,” says Colvin.

ITI and Serious Labs will develop two models of crane simulators, a ’sit-down’ version with a full motion experience, and a portable desktop version that can be packed into a single Pelican case.

Apart from having units at seven ITI training centres around North America, the company plans to distribute simulators directly to end users in the market.

Parnell says: “We are very excited about making simulation training much more affordable and effective than in the past. The VR users experience is significantly better than flat-screen simulation and because the entire experience is less than two inches from your eyes, the hardware costs are greatly reduced. One of the biggest complaints we have heard is that simulators are underutilised, typically because there is only two available in a fixed location. We expect to train our customer’s team at a fraction of the cost, allowing more simulators to be available throughout the workforce’s locations.”

Colvin says the two companies are trying to keep as many parts of the experience as generic as possible, so it can be offered to a broader base of learners and number of crane models. He says that the benefit of VR is that most of the panels, screens and buttons present in the actual cab will be represented by software, giving the product more versatility among crane models.

Parnell adds that ITI is in talks with a few mobile crane OEMs to bring specific crane models into the simulator.

Beyond training

Load handling equipment provider Hiab, part of Cargotec, was the first in the industry to incorporate virtual reality goggles in crane operation.

The company presented the HiVision 3D control system, developed by Swedish VR software provider Voysys, at Bauma and expects it to be on the market at the beginning of 2017. The system allows operators of Hiab’s Loglift/ Jonsered forestry cranes to operate them from the truck cabin.

There are four cameras located in a small box where the operator’s head would normally be, to enable a realistic 240° view. When the operator turns his head, the image switches from two forward-looking cameras to two sideways cameras.

Rafal Sornek, Hiab’s vice president, technology and quality development says drivers no longer need to get out of the truck cabin, as they can operate all the stabilisers from there.

“Experienced operators were surprised with how realistic it is. One of the best reactions was someone who put on the goggles and was holding on to the chair, because he felt he was sitting so high that was scared of falling down.”

Sornek says through virtual reality technology crane operator accidents can be avoided. “Forestry crane operators usually work in very remote locations, quite often in the winter night they need to climb the ladder to reach the top seat , which is covered with snow, so sometimes they slip and fall down. This would not happen when using this system because you are sitting in the cabin.”

Payload can be saved because there is no need for an operators’ cabin. He also says by removing the operators’ cabin, the crane’s aerodynamic drag is reduced, improving fuel efficiency on the road.

VR technology can also be a way to attract young talent, Sornek says: “It is getting more and more difficult to attract young people to work as crane operators. It is not perceived as an attracting job, sitting at the top of a crane and operating it. Once you showed them that virtual reality is also entering this area, it can become more attractive for some.”

He also noted that virtual reality can allow for remote operation of a crane when trucks become driverless. “Once you have driverless trucks, it would be pointless to have a crane operator sitting on it to go to the job site. I think if only telecommunication companies can provide better network capacity, then I can easily imagine that you can operate this crane completely remotely. Not from the truck cabin but from the sofa at home. I think the new way to work will also have a great social impact, as it will increase the diversity of the workforce.”

Although at the moment the system is focusing on the forestry industry, Sornek says it can also be used in a range of industries such as recycling and defence.

Sornek says virtual reality technology can also be used for data collection and analysis. “We can use the cameras to record what has been loaded and if it has been loaded correctly.”

Terex Cranes’s Christmann also believes that virtual reality systems in the crane industry do not have to be solely used for training purposes.

He says that they can be used for promoting the company’s products.

“At Bauma we used the VR system for visitors to see the factories, job sites and one of our future crane models currently in development,” he says. Christmann also says that in the future virtual reality technology can be used in research and development processes.

“We can also use it for testing crane software, before implementing you can download it on the simulator. Also to test the hydraulic behaviour of the crane.”

The use of virtual reality technology in the crane industry is still at an early stage, but it seems to have been finding its place in simulators. As this technology evolves, it has the potential to radically change ‘traditional’ crane operation practices, especially if it allows cranes to be operated remotely. In this scenario, how people are trained, how fleet owners recruit and crane operators’ working days could change drastically.