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"Human factors" at the heart of Control Room design

-Robert Arnoux

Where JET or Tore Supra have an average of 20 operators in their Control Rooms, ITER will have 60 to 80 operators, engineers and researchers. (Click to view larger version...)
Where JET or Tore Supra have an average of 20 operators in their Control Rooms, ITER will have 60 to 80 operators, engineers and researchers.
A control room today, whether for a railway system, space mission or power plant, is more than just seats, desks and computer screens. It is a highly organized working environment where nothing is left to chance.

Over the past decades, a branch of science and engineering has developed that aims at optimizing the relationship between the human operators and the systems they operate. "Human factors" is a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates contributions from ergonomics, psychology, ethnography, industrial design, and biomechanics.

It is at the heart of how ITER approaches the design of its Control Room. But what is standard procedure in most industries takes on a special dimension here: the specificity of the ITER experimental machine and operation program generates some unique challenges.

"Due to the complexity of the machine and to the number of people involved both on location and through remote participation, the ITER Control Room is larger than usual," explains ITER head of the Assembly & Operation Division Ken Blackler. "Where JET or Tore Supra have an average of 20 operators in their respective Control Rooms, we will have 60 to 80 operators, engineers and researchers."

The size of the room and the number of operators means that special attention must be paid to noise dampening, seating design, and the floor plan. "The operation of a fusion research device is very collaborative, especially on an international project such as ITER," adds Ken. "You have to anticipate how people will group, and decide on the optimal distance between desks: not too close to prevent a feeling of crammed place ... not too far to facilitate communication."

Operators in the ITER Control Room will see in real time—in both the visible and infrared spectrum—what is happening inside the Tokamak. (Click to view larger version...)
Operators in the ITER Control Room will see in real time—in both the visible and infrared spectrum—what is happening inside the Tokamak.
As in any Control Room, computer screens will display all the information needed to drive the machine. But in what way? "Beyond the raw data, we need to give operators a 'vision' of the information, using real-time 3D images for instance to provide a better sense of understanding. That's what we did in JET and that's what we will optimize in ITER."

Providing a physical, realistic perception of the machine is also essential. Operators in the ITER Control Room will see in real time—in both the visible and infrared spectrum—what is happening inside the Tokamak.

The ITER Control Room will occupy a large area under 7-metre ceilings, creating a "strong sense of space." Interior lighting will follow the pattern of natural light to provide a "sense of time"—important in a facility that will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Windows will also let in a bit of natural light or allow a vision of the night sky. And an outside balcony, adjacent to the small restaurant area, will allow for a breath of fresh air from time to time.

The multicultural nature of the project will generate other challenges—colour codes and symbols are not as universal as we may think. "What does a red light signify?" asks Ken. "Does it mean something is working or stopped? Safe or dangerous? This is something we have to clearly establish."

The ITER shop window

As the "shop window" of the project, the ITER Control Room will comprise a glass-walled viewing gallery that will give visitors a panoramic view of the operators and control screens. An exhibition space will also be organized nearby so that the public can get a sense of what it is like to work at harnessing the energy of the stars.
At this stage of the project, it is necessary to producing a preliminary design of the ITER Control Room in order to finalize the design of the Control Building, the two-storey structure that will host the Control Room, the CODAC computer centre and several meeting rooms and offices.

To this end, the ITER Organization has commissioned the UK human factors consultancy specialist CCD which has completed more than 350 control room designs over the past 30 years, among them the London Air Traffic Control Centre, the Easy-Jet Operations Room, and control rooms for the Hong Kong Police and CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Final design will be completed in a few years' time, just before procurements are launched. The layout will be flexible as possible for it may need to be adapted in the course of ITER commissioning and operation.

In less than eight years, by crossing the glass-walled walkway leading to the operational centre of ITER, one will enter a world scientifically designed for the efficient, productive and safe interaction between man and machine.

Click here to view a video animation of the ITER Control Room.


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