Researchers at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Energetics and Materials at the Public University of Navarre are working on the implementation of a fork-lift truck simulator for training purposes and aimed at minimising the risks involved in their use in the workplace. The project, led by Department member Jesus Maria Pintor, is being undertaken after being commissioned by the Navarre Government's Institute of Occupational Health and forms part of a wider project, started in 2002, on workplace risks involved with fork-lift trucks.
To start with, the risks involved in the use of fork-lift trucks were evaluated. This study enabled a number of what have proved to be highly useful user manuals to be drawn up and which analysed these occupational hazards for the vehicle. These manuals can be consulted on the webpage of the Institute of Occupational Health.
After this preliminary study, it was seen that there was a need to stress the training aspects in the use of the vehicles, always taking into account the above-mentioned risks involved. Following on from this, in 2004, the research team proposed the design of a fork-lift truck for the future and the development of a simulator for it; one that could be used both for training purposes and in lessons for obtaining the driving licence for which there is not as yet any officially approved standardised test.
Fork-lift truck driving licence
The project consists of two parts depending on its use. The first aims at training in the use of the vehicle. To this end, we have been working in the design of software for a menus application that enables carrying out tests for driving theory and practice. The operators themselves can self-test on how many and which mistakes are being made in the course of the simulation exercises. Besides training in theory, the research team's simulator is novel in that it teaches - in a virtual manner - practical skills. With this system the operator moves inside a virtual reality scenario which simulates a large industrial plant with a store and with loading and unloading bays; a simulation through which the operator has to undertake a series of tasks. At the end of the session, the system will tell you if you have committed errors, how many and which ones. Moreover, the scenario itself and the tasks proposed therein are always designed with the working risks involved in mind, with the aim of training the operator in how to avoid such potential risks.
In the second part, the system the researchers have been working on will function as a driving test centre for future fork-lift operators. Although such a driving licence exists legally, there does not as yet exist an officially approved standardised test for it. Thus, once the simulator is developed, it can be used for just such a driving test centre.
Much more than just a videogame
The simulator being developed by the researchers at the Public University of Navarre has advantages in its uses and its modularity. The first version, now completed, appears at first sight to be a videogame, with a computer screen, a joystick, a steering wheel and pedals, all of which enable movement and manoeuvring in this virtual environment. According to research team leader, Jesus Maria Pintor, behind all this visual aspect, there lies important calculation and engineering work: "Because we are resolving the real dynamic problems of the vehicle, the forces and accelerations involved and all in real time."
This way of resolving problems of manoeuvring in real time enables the introduction of elements of virtual reality into the second phase of the project that incorporate high doses of realism for the operator. The user wears a virtual reality helmet whereby, instead of watching a monitor screen, the image is in front of the eyes and, moreover, in three dimensions; the operator can move around the environment as if really immersed in it. When the user interacts with the simulator, he or she will perceive the forces, accelerations and movements corresponding to the use of a fork-lift truck in a real situation; this thanks to the incorporation of a movement platform fitted to a real model of the vehicle with its pedals, levers, steering wheel and so on. The great advantage of this system is that the user can be subjected to high potential risk situations without running any real danger and, at the same time, be trained in the correct response to each of these situations.