Training is a central function at National Grid US. The training team there delivers an abundance of courses, both core and specialty, not just for its direct employees, but for its contractors too.
Each year, the company welcomes between 50 and 60 new mechanics, all of whom undergo a rigorous course of training. There are numerous one-off courses, on topics as diverse as Live Gas Conditions, Welding and Power Distribution. In addition, there is also the Annual Expert Training to administer. This programme ensures that some 200 people are kept up to date with best practice in real life applications during a four day curriculum. The most prestigious of all is the training delivered to the Smartgrid Technology Group. This is a cherry-picked group of advanced engineers who receive extra training on how to deal with unusual scenarios, such as outages or faults.
However, the US training team is currently reassessing all the courses it delivers with a view to entirely reformulating all the classroom-based courses. This is because, following a demonstration from their colleagues in the UK, the US team decided that their next training “must-have” was Virtual Reality (VR).
“Our colleagues in the U.K. made us aware of Virtalis and helped us begin our 3D technological journey. Currently, we are identifying the areas where VR will have the greatest impact on our training courses. Obviously, one of those top areas is safety training in what is often a hazardous environment.” Brian Varga, Director of US Technical Learning & Development at National Grid
National Grid US bought three Virtalis ActiveMove immersive display systems and is developing a library of interactive 3D VR models that will be incorporated into the company’s technical training.
Virtalis is working with National Grid staff to create training storyboards and is also building a library of 3D models of hardware and backdrops. This should make the creation of future training content easier, because it will be possible to draw on the library of parts and backdrops and bolt them together.
The VR models the Virtalis team, headed by Jamie Femia, have completed include a generic power station, a generic substation, a regulator gas substation, reclosers, and gas valves.
Effort is being put into making the training as interactive as possible, so students engage with the content. With National Grid equipment remaining in operation for anything up to 35 years, there is an understandable diversity of products. The Virtalis models draw on both legacy parts and equipment that is still in production. One of the first 3D models to be developed was the steam-driven turbo generator. Using the ActiveMove hand controller, detailed information about the generator’s individual parts can be accessed. Accurate models of parts not yet in production can be represented in a virtual environment to allow detailed and realistic training ahead of product delivery.
The VR courses allow the student to make choices, such as what tools will be required for a task and what personal protection will be needed. Before a stage can be completed, certain criteria have to be met and there is interaction between the instructor and the student throughout the process steps that have been deliberately designed to closely mimic real life.
“Our new VR training is easy to tailor for different audiences. An illustration is the 3D Inspection of an Underground Regulator Station Course; it can be delivered to specialists, or can be delivered in a different way to non technical staff as an introduction to natural gas.” Ed Ruszkowski, Regional Manager for Gas Learning & Development at National Grid
VIRTALIS VR TECHNOLOGY
ActiveMove is a transportable, interactive, 3D visualization system that is part of the Virtalis ActiveWorks family of 3D immersive visualization solutions. With ActiveMove, data can not only be visualized in stereoscopic 3D (on screens up to 10×7’6’’ in size), but also the system enables full immersion and interaction, thanks to Virtalis’ integrated head and hand tracking solution. The user can navigate through the virtual world, pick and manipulate component parts in real time and make decisions on the fly. National Grid’s ActiveMove system makes use of the Christie Mirage S+6K range of 3D projectors with a wired Intersense IS900 tracking system, powered by a Dell workstation.
The data for the VR models is usually prepared and sent to Virtalis in 3D Studio Max by external animation and modelling agency, R Squared Digital Media Inc (R2DM). Virtalis is then able to use its MaxExchange software, which was launched last year, to import the data into its own renderer, Visionary Render, where it is checked and optimized and then the actions and interactions are programmed in. Virtalis MaxExchange software acts as a plug-in for Autodesk 3ds Max allowing models to be exported without any loss of data or formatting. Similarly, the VR models can move in the opposite direction and be translated into Autodesk 3ds Max.
BENEFITS TO STUDENTS AND INSTRUCTORS ALIKE
“With VR, we’ve been able to move from a PowerPoint presentation to a hands-on model. Our course exploring the features of the Viper Recloser is typical. The VR model was built at Virtalis using the vendor’s data and it reproduces all the recloser’s features. We can even show it at 1:1 scale, to teach students how it works without having to climb to the top of a utility pole. The technology is familiar to many of our students, as they grew up with virtual world computer games.” Patrick Hallihan, Senior Training and Engineering Instructor at National Grid
“I always get a powerful response from students who are able to interact with the virtual environment without risk of injury,” Nicholas Lubrano, Senior Instructor in Electric Training.
National Grid Website
The National Grid US business is an arm of the international organization, National Grid plc, that supplies electricity and gas to millions of homes.