Not any more

Former video game firm does heavy lifting – The Globe and Mail

In Canada on August 16, 2010 at 08:25

It’s not exactly “Grand Theft Tower Crane.” But a small Montreal company is capitalizing on its video-game expertise to make simulators for training crane operators and bomb-disposal specialists. Its software could one day even control robots on other planets.

CMLabs Simulations Inc. recently inked deals to sell simulators in East Helena, Mont., where the technology will train crane operating engineers, and Stavanger, Norway, where simulators will mimic the cranes used on oil rigs in the North Sea.

“There is a huge shortage of skilled operators. And it’s very hard to train operators on the real equipment because the real equipment is offshore,” said Arnold Free, CMLabs Simulations’ vice-president of business development.

“So, although you may know how to operate a mobile crane, or a tower crane, that doesn’t mean you can operate a crane on a rig. The rig is on a floating platform. You’re lifting loads off a ship. It’s also moving. Everything is moving. You’re working in terrible conditions. So high winds, high seas in the North Sea. It’s a dangerous job for sure.”

CMLabs’ applications range from desktop models on a single computer to fully immersive simulators that replicate the cab environment, said Mr. Free.

Prices range from $20,000 to $25,000 for the most basic system to $300,000 for the most sophisticated. That’s a fraction of the costs of many of the machines the systems simulate — not to mention the potential damage the real equipment can cause if improperly operated in the real world.

“You can’t train for emergency situations [on a real crane],” said David Healey, the director of training and operations at the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario’s Oakville campus. “You can’t go out and purposely try to tip a crane over, but you can in a simulation.”

An operator tests his skills using the Vortex simulator of a tower crane.

CMLabs Simulations

An operator tests his skills using the Vortex simulator of a tower crane.

Each simulator is based on an actual model of machine used in the field. For example, the mobile crane mimics a Grove RT530E while the tower crane is based upon a Liebherr 63LC. The joysticks and pedals are also like those found in actual cranes.

“Everything is OEM — original equipment manufacturer,” Mr. Healey said.

The displays consist of four 50-inch, high-definition plasma screens. For the mobile crane, the screens are left, right and front, with the fourth overhead. That’s because the operator is near the ground and has to look up at the top of the boom. For the tower crane simulator, the fourth screen lies below, facing up. That’s because the cab sits far above the ground.

“The core thing that we do is simulate the behaviour of vehicles – ground vehicles, robotics,” Mr. Free said. “And when I talk about robotics, it’s not the kind of robot you’d see in manufacturing. It’s autonomous robotics or human-controlled robots.”

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The company’s software, branded as Vortex, has simulated the surface of Mars for robotic rovers, and the bottom of the sea. Customers include Honda, Lockheed Martin, NASA and Carnegie Mellon University.

CMLabs grew out of a firm called Lateral Logic, which was founded in the 1990s and built simulators for forestry equipment, Mr. Free said.

About 1999, a British company, Math Engine, acquired Lateral Logic and renamed it Math Engine Canada. The division’s mandate was to develop middleware for the gaming industry and mobile computing.

Soon after, the division was sold to the video game giant Electronic Arts, Mr. Free said, and was refocused on developing a physics engine for the game industry, called Karma.

Karma has since been used in such games as Unreal Tournament 2003, Raven Shield, and Duke Nukem Forever, according to the popular gaming site www.actiontrip.com.

“As far as I know it is still used today by EA in projects. I know they still maintain the code,” Mr. Free said.

CMLabs' simulators can also be used for team training.

CMLabs Simulations

CMLabs’ simulators can also be used for team training.

Ultimately, in 2001 the company morphed into CMLabs and shifted its focus. Karma would be the foundation of CMLabs’ engine, branded as Vortex. Since then, the company has grown to 25 employees.

The technology also been deployed in military training and research. The Belgian army uses it to simulate a tank and in bomb-disposal training. “I’d say about 25 per cent of our work is in defence,” Mr. Free said.

In developing its turnkey systems, CMLabs is focusing on three industries: construction equipment such as cranes, excavators and bulldozers; off-shore oil and gas equipment; and port-container-handling equipment.

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