Robots create hands-on feeling for remote mine operators

In the old days, miners would take a canary down to work with them in the mine shaft. If the canary died, the miners knew that they’d soon be next if they didn’t make a run for it. Canaries were a good indicator of pending disaster.

But canaries can’t do algorithms

In the mine shafts of the future, it will be robots not canaries that act as sentinels for safety. They’ll also be programmed to support or carry out other aspects of mining operations, while human operators stay safely positioned in remote stations above ground. But in the absence of any warm blooded beings below, how will remote operators be able to get a hands-on feeling of what’s going on? In order for mining operations to remain robust, efficient and safe, these remote operators can’t just be observers. They must partake in the operations, and with different senses in play.

A sense of sight can be achieved with various types of remote camera visualizations, although it’s still not easy for operators in the absence of 3D or stereoscopic view. But what about the other senses? Robots need to give feedback to the extent that remote operators feel just like being there on the spot with the remote machine.

Putting all the senses in play

An operator using a subterranean robot to drill holes in rock face may be able to experience a sense of touch, for example, through haptic feedback on the remote controllers. That means being able to feel how solid the rock is and adjust speed or strength accordingly. If the rock were to get too hard for the drilling equipment, it could create all kinds of unwanted safety repercussions and the need for expensive repairs.

shutterstock_132947174A sense of hearing as well as a sense of smell would also be useful, for example, to analyze machine motor sounds and underground explosions or events where gas leaks or burning are indicators of pending disaster. In the former case, auditory feedback is rather easy to implement with microphones, speakers and deliberate sound design. But in the latter case, instead of direct olfactory, or sense of smell, feedback, applicable sensors need to be able to detect suspicious alterations in air quality and alarm operators in other ways.

We recently visited a mining and technology conference in Toronto where many of the presenters and participants were using buzzwords like IoT, Industry 4.0, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), user experience and autonomous systems. However, during the breaks, most conceded that the mining industry still has some way to go before these tech trends could be applied to deliver value.

How can VTT help?

In a rather different kind of environment to mines, VTT, together with Tampere University, has developed a Remote Operation and Virtual Reality Center (ROViR) in Tampere, Finland to support remote operation and maintenance simulations for one of the world’s most challenging energy projects, based in the South of France, called ITER – in Latin, meaning ‘the way’.

As with mineshafts, no warm-blooded beings will be able to enter the ITER facility once it’s up and running. That means all maintenance will have to be carried out by smart robots, equipped with sensors for dealing with every possible scenario.

Finding the way with ITER

So far at ROViR, VTT has achieved high success in simulating ITER remote maintenance operations, many of which can be applied to other sectors. For example, VTT has honed the use of a transport robot to move a ten-tonne reactor cassette along a desired route with an accuracy of plus or minus 1 mm.

As well as supporting ITER, one of the aims of our design work with ROViR has been to find new ways for remote operators to achieve a sense of control. And many of these solutions can be directly applied to mining. For example, using VR/AR to help operators better understand spatial dimensions, such as distances among elements; applying ecological interface design for safety-critical control room monitoring user interfaces; or using AR video feeds to highlight crucial objects in remote work areas.

Our InnoLeap concept design approach has been developed to push radical new concepts into the industrial workplace. Backed by the experience gained from this concept design work with ROViR center, we’re now well positioned to provide numerous applications for other industries, especially the mining sector. That means collaborating with mining companies to go deep into the remote operators’ user experience. Using our task-analysis methods, we can explore what remote mining operators will need to do and know in order to be successful in their work tasks, both in abnormal and normal situations.

Canary or no canary, remote operators in the mines of the future won’t succeed by just winging it.

For more information, please visit:

Hannu Karvonen
Research Scientist, VTT



Mikael Wahlström
Senior Scientist, VTT



What will your industry look like in 2030?

Industry is reinventing itself around digitalization. New technology buzzwords like user experience, augmented and virtual reality, automation, autonomous systems, and Industry 4.0 are all becoming mainstream. But every industry has the same problem: how should the new technologies be applied to deliver value in a disruptive market?

Change is coming

When we go out into the field, customer discussions turn quickly to the biggest fear they face. Fear of missing the boat or losing their competitive advantage. Change is coming but they don’t know what that change looks like, only that someone, somewhere might be about to steal their lunch.

Sun Tzu in the Art of Warfare said “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” We don’t think he had technology wars in mind. But what if we apply his thinking anyway to today’s competitive markets? To combat change you have to become the change. And if you don’t know what change looks like, the best way to predict it is to create it yourself – in collaboration with the right partners. InnoLeap_text_CMYK

At VTT, we developed InnoLeap to serve partner companies who have taken precisely this kind of proactive stance towards changing conditions. So instead of waiting around to see what change your industry will deliver up next, why not take the lead and become that change. But how?

Disrupt your own domain

The best place to start is to visualize change by developing new and future-oriented solution concepts. We can work with you to deliver them in ways that are engaging for your customers, the media, and other broader stakeholder groups.

Some of our jointly developed concept solutions have already tested well, with a surprising degree of success. Rolls-Royce Marine piloted InnoLeap and our collaboration journey led us to a whole new vision for unmanned ship operations in 2030. With this shared project, not only did we go together some way towards disrupting the marine domain, but we also caused a shift in thinking towards renewal of the entire industry – in this case, through visualizations of the operation of autonomous ships.

InnoLeap, if we unpack it, is basically a collection of concept design principles to push radical new concepts into the industrial workplace. Backed by our experience and solid research methods, we can go deep into the users’ world and experience while at the same time wowing your stakeholders with previously unimagined designs: with task-analysis methods, we explore what the users need to do and know in order to be successful in their work tasks, both in abnormal and normal situations. Together with the client, we can then combine this understanding with knowledge on technology trends for creating new solutions of the future.

Be your industry’s new thought leader​

With Rolls-Royce Marine, VTT was able to work with the media in a third-party capacity, precluding the need for our client to self promote. And in the first three weeks, our concept releases, pictures and video had garnered 250 separate news articles and 40,000 YouTube hits.

Rolls-Royce Marine definitely raised its profile, repositioning itself in the industry as the new thought leader, and the company is now working to influence stakeholders, including maritime lawmakers, to help drive these new concepts forward. Which means, when it comes to radical industry change, Rolls-Royce Marine is definitely not missing the boat.

For more information, please visit:

SEE: Rolls-Royce shore control centre concept video

Mikael Wahlström
Senior Scientist, VTT




Hannu Karvonen
Research Scientist, VTT


Find out what your users want, but don’t give it to them!

User experience can drive innovation, but if you’re looking for epoch-making innovation, don’t look only at what the users want.

In our user research work, we talk a lot to professional users. We interview them on what they do with a view to wrapping our findings into product and service concepts. The irony of our work is that even though user experience data is invaluable, if we really want to come up with a big new domain disruptor concept, we’re better off not going along what the users wish for.

Hands on learning in the Deep South

We were a few years back on the East Coast of the US doing fieldwork for Konecranes. The plan was to interview local crane operators, as part of a core-task analysis to discover the general demands of their work. These findings would eventually fold into a prototype system for a remote operator station, delivered through our InnoLeap approach.

Down at the wharf side, they can be a bunch of tough guys, and not keen on being interviewed by Finnish scientists. After a few false starts, we decided to bin the interview plan and settle for small talk. Although not a Finnish specialty, once we’d introduced the topic of last night’s ball game, we quickly found ourselves in full conversation and sharing mode.

In terms of developing an empathetic understanding of the users, we were well on our way. These crane operators knew exactly what they were doing and why. After years on the job, they had an intuitive nose for their operations making them able to sniff out potential problems and analyze the safety of their operations.


However, once we started asking them for ideas on how they could do things more easily, more safely and more efficiently, for example through automated operations, they were generally stumped. In most cases, we find that users are too closely wedded to their current systems and practices to be intuitively able to even conceive of a radical new approach. On top of that, users are not necessarily up to speed with the whole gambit of technical possibilities or trends that the future has on offer.

Intelligent towing for ghost ships

As another case in point, the InnoLeap team worked with Rolls-Royce Marine, to develop new concepts for future ship bridges. One important user study finding was the need for tugboat operators escorting large ships to constantly anticipate the movement of the bigger ships being towed, especially in turbulent seas. Massive cargo ships turn slowly so tugs need to assist in an anticipatory way before the big vessel gets into trouble.


Since these ships of the future may be autonomous, or ghost ships, as some of the users called them, the design goal had to be remote but highly intelligent. Taking into account the user findings and design goals, we came up with, for example, one concept solution called Intelligent Towing, which involved a direct data transfer from the big ship to the digital window head-up display of the tugboat. Information included the speed, turning rate, and distance between the two vessels, as well as the rate of strain directed on the towline.

How to address the irony of user research and radical innovation

The developed concepts and their visualizations scored a very high wow factor from the industry as well as technology pundits and even mainstream media. The secret to success from our side was to involve the user experience perspective only once we’d achieved what we call the fuzzy front end of design. This is the time when we’re free to come up with all kinds of initial concepts, even bordering on the absurd. Later we’ll have a chance to temper these ideas against the true user experience with a view to one day turning ideas into real marketable solutions.

This was also our intention in the fieldwork with Konecranes. At the end of our visit with the wharfies, we gave a hearty thank you and talked of a possible return visit to do some evaluations of our designs – and maybe even catch another ball game.

For more information, please visit:

Hannu Karvonen
Research Scientist, VTT



Mikael Wahlström
Senior Scientist, VTT



From mindless high-carbon transport to intelligent low-carbon transport

Nils-Olof Nylund Galleria

Travel and transport in Finland won’t be finishing any time soon. Society functions on the basis of movement of people and goods. One thing is clear, though: in future this will have to be handled in a smarter way, and with less burden on the environment. Intelligent transport and electric cars are one part of this reasoning.  In construction we are closing in on all new houses being zero energy. Zero energy for cars, though, is sadly out of reach; anybody claiming otherwise will need to have invented the perpetual motion machine.

Intelligent low-carbon transport

This is a highly topical theme.  In the second week of June the Ministry of Employment and the Economy organised a seminar in connection with preparation for the “Energy and Climate Roadmap 2050”. The following week a sizeable group of intelligent transport experts gathered in Helsinki for the 10th ITS European Congress (2014 ITS Europe).

The background material to the ministry’s energy and climate roadmap sets a target for emission reduction of 80–95% by 2050. Where transport is concerned, this is some challenge.  Here we need to make special mention of sustainable biofuels and the shift to more efficient modes of mobility and transport. Any further growth in the number of private cars in urban areas is also out.  People in areas covered by public transport will have to be tempted out of their cars and into public vehicles. Bicycles spring to mind as an obvious alternative, either in traditional or electrically aided high-tech mode.

How are climate targets linked to intelligent transport then? In many ways, as a matter of fact. Intelligent transport and logistics services allow the mobility machine to work at maximum efficiency. Intelligent services also increase the appeal of public transport, and simplify the planning  of travel chains and ticket purchase. Little by little, we begin to acquire real-time information on traffic. No longer are we tied to information on printed timetables: our mobile device tells us when the bus we want will actually arrive.

TransSmart vision

In 2013, VTT launched the TransSmart spearhead programme on intelligent transport. TransSmart is a free-flowing, cost-efficient and environmentally friendly cooperation and development platform for transport systems. We launched a publication for the programme at the beginning of 2014 concerning the vision and roadmap Finnish only). This is accompanied by the Visions publication in which we spread the good news on intelligent low-carbon transport to a wide audience in an informal and approachable manner, while at the same time illustrating its potential to Finnish actors.

Electric cars and the intelligent transport system

I would argue that where an intelligent transport system might manage without electric cars, electric cars will certainly need to be supported by an intelligent transport system. If nothing else, drivers of electric cars will need up-to-date information on where they can recharge.

VTT’s primary development focus concerning electric vehicles is on the electrification of bus traffic, in cooperation with the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HRT). HRT is responsible for over 60% of Finland’s public transport. Both the promotion of public transport and the path to sustainability are closely synchronised with energy and climate roadmap policies. I’m nevertheless a little surprised why the electric car should generally be favoured as private transport. Also, why we should encourage the purchase of electric cars, among other things by allowing them to use bus lanes.

And all this while the roadmap is saying there should be an end to growth of private transport in urban areas. The electric car will no doubt have its place, but this can’t be at the expense of public transport.  And tell me this, if you can, where’s the sense in the latest incentive for electric cars that appeared just last week: “electric cars should be allowed to reach 160 km/h in Finland”. At that rate we’ll end up either with batteries flattened mid-journey or the terminal crash of all electric motoring.


Nils-Olof Nylund

Research Professor and Programme Manager of the TransSmart spearhead programme

Intelligent and fair transport, please?

Rantasila Karri_blogi

There has recently been much talk in the media about the costs of intelligent transport and distance-based taxation. What puzzles me is why the debate on intelligent transport invariably focuses on the cost aspect. We should also be talking about the social impacts of intelligent transport, which involve not only traffic itself but also new business opportunities.

Finnish operators have excellent expertise in various areas of intelligent transport and are thus well placed to exploit the emerging market and to create new business, new jobs and new exports in Finland. This is an angle I would like the media to cover more.

Sometimes it is claimed that technological advances always cut jobs. This is certainly not true in intelligent transport. A VTT report showed the intelligent transport sector in Finland to have an estimated turnover of EUR 300 million and to employ about 1,700 people (2010). The international market for intelligent transport devices is estimated to be growing by about 20% per year. Such a significant market offers a remarkable opportunity for a variety of operators, and is of national significance.

As a developer of intelligent transport, Finland is especially well placed. Our country is the ideal size and we have the ideal technological expertise for trying out new services and innovations such as intelligent transport. We also have close cooperation between enterprises, authorities and research institutes providing a solid foundation for new intelligent transport services.

In the multiple-operator environment of intelligent transport, we must be able to create new operating models and value networks where the goals and strengths of various operators can meet. A case in point is the ongoing Helsinki – St Petersburg Smart Transport Corridor project, in which VTT is involved along with enterprises and public authorities. The development of a new intelligent transport ecosystem caters to both transport policy and business policy.

The final report of the working group led by Jorma Ollila and appointed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Fair and intelligent transport (only available in Finnish), notes that before the final decision is made to adopt distance-based taxation, it is important to establish with certainty the functionality of the technology, applicability to taxation use, costs and privacy issues. The report further notes that progress should be made through testing, which is exactly what is being done now. VTT has been actively involved in a number of transport field testing projects in Europe. I hope that we will be able to put our expertise to good use in the testing called for by the Ollila working group.

Finland now has a unique opportunity to draw on close cooperation between the authorities, enterprises and other interest groups to do something unique and build an intelligent transport ecosystem. This will enable us to create better services for travellers and generate new business and export products.

Finnish intelligent transport operators will have a unique opportunity to present their expertise and services from 16 to 19 June 2014 at the ITS European Congress in Helsinki.

VTT will have a presence at the exhibition, and VTT employees will be giving talks. You can find us at stand A19.

Hope to see you at the Fair Centre in June!

Karri Rantasila, Key Account Manager