From the cab of the haul truck, you can see for miles across the dark, jagged edges of the coal mine. A dragline sits idle while a man in a blue hard hat leans an elbow on the hood of his white pickup truck, staring off into the distance.
What you can’t see through the windshield, more than 20 feet off the ground, are the vehicles and people in your blind spot: The four men conferring in a cluster near your front tire or the pickup idling less than 100 feet from the back of the truck.
A move in either direction could lead to accidentally squashing a vehicle under the 14-foot tires, or worse, the death of a co-worker.
This is exactly the type of accident that Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) instructor Nick Ullrich is trying to prevent with his new virtual reality training software. Once, all he had at his disposal was a textbook with measurements and vague descriptors, and a few outdated videos. Now, not only is he able to physically transport a trainee behind the wheel of a haul truck or other piece of mining equipment, he can physically transport that person via virtual reality to the top of the boom on the dragline more than 220 feet in the air, or conversely, allow them to virtually explore and walk the equipment from the ground.
It’s opened up a whole new mode of training that allows Ullrich to harness technology and create a hands-on learning experience for the trainee. It not only teaches, it also provides the physical experience of learning.
Sitting behind his desk in his second-story office of the Gillette College Tech Center, Ullrich slipped on a pair of Vive HTC virtual reality googles and demonstrated how it works. With a click of a toggle switch, a 3D image of a dragline appeared on his laptop screen. A few more clicks, and Ullrich was virtually climbing ladders to the top of the boom, which, for those with a fear of heights, is usually when they begin gripping the arms of their chair in terror.
Simulating the view from more than 200 feet in the sky, Ullrich is able to literally put a trainee in the driver’s seat, showing them firsthand the swing radius of the bucket, which, in itself, is large enough to fit three cars. Were they to swing the bucket too far to the right, they would bash it into a small shop building and likely take out the pickup parked next to it.
It’s this visual that Ullrich believes sticks with most people. Yes, they can learn about safe distances and memorize feet and inches; but sitting behind the wheel, literally in the driver’s seat, seeing the distance firsthand, it goes a lot further when it comes to sensory learning and allowing a person to see and experience it for themselves.
As a former miner, Ullrich knows about the hazards of working in a surface mine. Safety-wise, coal mining is one of those perilous fields where accidents, when they happen, can be both deadly and expensive. Between January and June of this year, there have been 20 nonfatal occurrences with lost workdays in Wyoming surface mines, and five injuries with no lost work time, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The last fatality at a Wyoming coal mine was in September 2017 at the Jim Bridger underground mine near Rock Springs, when a worker died after a slab of coal fell on him. In 2017, two miners were killed in Utah while touring a mine prior to their first day of work.
Ullrich’s insight both as an operator and trainer has helped him design a virtual reality training program with the help of University of Wyoming computer science graduate Jake Claytor, who Ullrich credits as being the brains behind the operation, while he simply provided the concept and ideas.
Ullrich came up with the idea for the virtual reality program after attending a MSHA conference in which he was introduced to similar software training program for underground mines. He came home and broached the idea to his boss, Jim Stratton, who approved just over $40,000 in MSHA grant money for the project.
Three months later, he and Claytor cranked out a working prototype. The 360-degree photos were taken at Black Thunder Mine and Dry Fork Mine in the Powder River Basin. Next, he plans to replace the images with scans to make the virtual reality experience more authentic.
Per MSHA standards, a new coal miner has to undergo 24 hours, or three eight-hour days, of training prior to going on site. Seasoned coal miners are also required to complete an eight-hour refresher course every year. Additionally, new miners are also required to take a mine tour before actually stepping on site, which is also something Ullrich hopes to be able to facilitate via his new software.
So far, he’s trained about 60 new and current miners with the three computers and goggles they have on site at the Industry Safety Training Center at the college. By next year, he’d like to have 30 fully working computer stations, complete with laptops and goggles, which are less expensive than one might think at about $1,000 to $2,000 per computer, and anywhere between $400 to $900 for the VR googles.
For the most part, Ullrich said the new trainees seem to really like it, even the older workers who are initially put off by the new technology. After a tutorial, Ullrich said they come around and immediately are excited to explore.
“Having them experience it for themselves and showing what it actually looks like from up there makes a huge impact on their memory,” Ullrich said.
Not only can they physically jump into several pieces of mine equipment, they can even pick up small Hot Wheel-size demo versions of the equipment from their desk seats in a virtual classroom. They can also view videos, take tests or transport themselves into a piece of equipment or to the top of the dragline.
In the future, along with improving the realistic quality of his virtual reality graphics, Ullrich would like to make some of the various dangers real, so the trainees could experience walls falling on them or running over a truck or other pitfalls without actually getting hurt. Again, he feels the sensory memory of the experience would go a long way for those trainees when they actually get onto a job site.
Not only is it a great training tool, but Ullrich also sees it as a huge time saver, as well.
The industry is also applauding the new software. In the past year, Ullrich and his team have been awarded the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Mine Safety and Health Technology Innovations Award, as well as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) National Mine Health and Safety Academy Training Innovation Award.
Along with improving his software, Ullrich is looking forward to sharing it with other states who follow similar MSHA training programs. Because it’s grant-funded, he can give it away for free to other groups by simply putting it on a 3 MB thumb drive.
In the meantime, it’s made training much more fun for everyone, including himself, as he demonstrated picking up a toy-size truck and turning it over on the screen to view from all angles, one of his design concepts that was inspired by one of his favorite television shows, “Supernatural.”
“It’s fun imagining things out of thin air and watching them come to life on screen,” he said with a smile. “It’s pretty powerful.”