Hello there! We are Team Crop Dusters out of Dubuque Iowa, and we are extremely excited to start working on our Virtual Reality Sprayer Simulation project for the Intel® Ultimate Coder Challenge IV: VR.
The goal of this project is to develop a framework for an immersive VR simulator encompassing training, operation, and safety procedures for a self-propelled sprayer. A self-propelled sprayer is a large tractor with boom arm mounts that can extend up to 150 feet in length. These boom arms are used to apply various fertilizers and pesticides onto row crops such as corn and soybeans. Heavy machinery can be difficult to operate, not only for new hires who need training, but also for experienced users to utilize the best techniques and safety practices. These days, fewer agricultural workers grew up on a farm, so a certain level of operation and safety training is required for anyone using a self-propelled sprayer. These large machines are expensive and dangerous if used incorrectly. The size of the machine, the large wing span of the boom arms, and the terrain that needs to be navigated are all factors that can put an operator in a dangerous situation. A sprayer operator faces many dangers, not only in the field, but driving to the crops navigating highway traffic, railway and other hazards. Operators who are not properly trained have an increased risk of rollover due to incorrect driving and also damaging the equipment by hitting telephone poles with the sprayer arms extended. These issues put the operator’s life at risk; our goal is to lessen that risk with VR training.
Currently, these issues are being addressed through real-world instructor-led training. However, throwing inadequately prepared operators into situations where mistakes can be anywhere from costly to deadly may not be the best training method for all. Even those who are prepared with traditional training methods have difficulty grasping the size and mass of the actual machine. Thus, in addition to these traditional training methods already in place, another more immersive experience could prove vital in reducing risk among operators. The virtual reality simulation we are developing will allow users to complete practical training before operating real machinery. The training will act as a supplemental experience that will enable pre-physical risk learning.
Over the next few weeks will be gathering requirements and talking with sprayer operators and trainers to determine how to make the best possible simulation. We will determine key situations that operators face, which will help us develop our VR environment and interactions. We will build our VR simulation utilizing Unity to access a number of benefits during development including the Asset Store. This will help us rapid prototype key features, including vehicle handling and control, so we can focus on the training environment and building an accessible experience.
We have already determined our hardware needs for the project. We will be using the Intel® NUC 8 to run the simulator and the Microsoft MR headset as our head-mounted display. The compact yet powerful Intel NUC 8 will fit well with our plan to build a portable rig for the sprayer simulator and the inside out tracking of the headset will allow us to keep a low footprint with our simulator build size.
Several challenges are likely to crop up during the development process; some of these are able to be predicted from the outset and will need to be addressed appropriately. Some may require compromise whereas others may be solved outright. One of these challenges will be achieving an acceptable and stable frame rate in Virtual Reality. VR is notoriously difficult on computers’ ability to process and display. We will tackle this challenge with a VR-ready computer and optimization compromises with regards to programming and models respectively. Another challenge associated with using Virtual Reality is making the simulation accessible to all users. This means motion sickness needs to be kept to a minimum so as not to put off new users, which will be the vast majority of the people that use this sprayer simulator.
We’re looking forward to getting started on this project! We find a high level of motivation comes easily when you’re working on a project that uses exciting new technology to potentially save lives. Stay tuned, as over the next couple of weeks we will be visiting sprayer operators, hopping into a sprayer ourselves and, of course, starting up the development of the simulator.