A lab that opened last month in Fife, Scotland shows how the energy industry is embracing virtual reality systems considered futuristic just two years ago.
The Fife College Immersive Hybrid Reality lab is designed to “enhance the training and development of the next generation of offshore wind turbine technicians,” according to a press release.
It simulates the top of a nacelle on a 7-megawatt offshore wind turbine, allowing students to carry out fault-finding inspections without having to leave shore.
The virtual environment is modeled on a real-life demonstration turbine off the East Fife coast, used by the U.K.’s Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult scheme for research and training.
Students can view the virtual environment through special goggles, but at the same time see their own hands and feet as well as being able to pick up and use real tools and manuals.
The virtual environment, created by the ORE Catapult along with Scottish public-private initiative the Energy Skills Partnership and animation studio Animmersion U.K., includes audio effects, such as wind noise, and can even simulate changing weather conditions.
A second virtual environment, currently being worked on, will simulate the interior of the turbine.
At the lab opening last month, the Scottish Government Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville, pledged further funding of GBP £50,000 (around $65,000) for the Energy Skills Partnership.
The money follows £300,000 ($389,000) already invested by the Scottish government in the virtual reality (VR) project.
Bill Hutchison, Fife College curriculum manager for electrical, electronic and petroleum engineering, predicted a rapid uptake of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the energy sector.
The renewable energy sector is already a “primary user” of VR for training, along with the aerospace, nuclear, construction and oil and gas industries, he said.
For offshore wind, in particular, VR and AR could provide very direct cost benefits compared to on-site training by avoiding the need to waste expensive components and spend money on travel to remote locations.
Students can use VR to "fly" through a virtual model of a turbine and become familiar with the work environment before visiting a site, which can help with logistics and job sequencing while reducing the likelihood of errors.
AR, meanwhile, allows engineers to complete work on site while benefiting from a VR overlay that provides information on assembly sequencing, tolerance measurement, tightening torque values and so on.
These are not the only areas where the offshore wind industry is beginning to use VR, though. The turbine maker MHI Vestas, for example, employs virtual environments as a sales tool at its exhibition stands.
“One of the challenges in the offshore wind industry is that turbines are not accessible,” said Michael Morris, external communication consultant at MHI Vestas Offshore Wind.
“Located in remote areas of the North Sea and standing over 100 meters high, not many people get a chance to see these mammoth turbines, let alone actually see inside one of them. VR actually is the only cost-effective way to show people an offshore wind turbine.”
MHI Vestas, which also uses VR for training, has conference stations where stand visitors don harnesses, protective vests and headsets before getting a guided tour around a virtual nacelle.
“Thousands of people have experienced the film over the past few years, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Morris said. “When we need to show people what the turbines look like and how they operate, VR is undoubtedly the best way.”
Today the main thing holding back greater adoption of VR is the number of systems there are to choose from, Hutchison said.
Certain systems may be better suited to given applications and it is still hard to pick market winners that stand a good chance of remaining in business in a few years’ time, he said.
However, “there does appear to be a refinement process going on quite rapidly, with a number of systems moving out in front as preferred choices,” he noted.
“It would be reasonable to see all advanced engineering industries to be routinely using VR and AR within the next five to 10 years,” he said.