DIII-D Researchers Leverage Videogaming App for Remote Operation During COVID-19

DOE facility runs a Discord server to meet its demanding communication needs

San Diego, March 2, 2021 – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced dramatic changes in how nearly everyone does their jobs. For many people, the transition to remote work has meant videoconference calls and more casual work attire. But for researchers at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, which General Atomics (GA) operates for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), continuing their experimental work required a considerably more robust solution than standard videoconferencing software.

Discord screenshots
These screenshots of the DIII-D remote collaboration interface show how Discord (first image) and the real-time diagnostic data streams (second image) allow scientists to conduct research on DIII-D no matter where they are located. One of the Discord channels displays a live feed of the main DIII-D display while others allow the operators to chat in pairs or groups during experiments. Courtesy General Atomics.

Under normal circumstances, a dozen or more researchers and technicians would be working in the DIII-D control room while running experiments on the device. COVID-19 restrictions have made such close interaction impossible. Rather than shut down, the DIII-D team developed and deployed a variety of innovative tools to continue operations, including an application that emerged from the world of video-gaming: Discord. The DIII-D Discord server has been one of the key tools that have enabled the facility to continue operating even though most of the researchers working on it are elsewhere.

“DIII-D is one of the most important fusion devices in the world, so it’s a bit remarkable that we’ve been able to continue our work using a free application originally created for video-gamers,” said David Schissel, Director of Computer Systems and Science at GA. “Combining it with some other customized tools has greatly expanded our capabilities in remote collaboration.”

DIII-D is the largest magnetic fusion research facility in the U.S. and is operated by GA as a national user facility for the DOE’s Office of Science. During operations on DIII-D, the control room operators need the freedom to conduct multiple simultaneous one-to-one and group discussions that are both time-critical and ad-hoc. With everyone in the same room, this is easy, but it becomes extremely challenging when working remotely.

Early work on remote collaboration for fusion experiments was supported by the DOE in the 2000s and was summarized in a 2005 article in the journal Physics of Plasmas. Springing from that early effort, the groundwork for dealing with COVID-19 was laid when GA developed a “remote fusion collaboration zone” for working with colleagues at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in Hefei, China. The EAST remote collaboration project was the subject of a 2017 article in the journal Nuclear Fusion and the remote experiments conducted by U.S. scientists were supported by DOE. When deciding how to continue DIII-D operations under COVID-19 restrictions, DIII-D scientists looked to build on the innovative work with EAST.

Discord was originally designed for video-gamers to share content as well as chat with each other. Because its structure is highly flexible, the DIII-D team was able to set up different channels for each operational conversation, both voice and text, as well as a variety of live video and audio feeds and screen shares.

However, additional software customization was necessary because of the need to stream real-time data from DIII-D’s many diagnostic instruments and control systems. Some of this can be streamed through Discord, but the DIII-D team needed to develop the means to stream all the data through a secure web-browser connection.

Discord is only used for communication among the team, rather than remote operation of the tokamak. Instead, remote operators on DIII-D use a VPN connection to a protected network, where the applications used for operating the tokamak can be accessed, along with other cybersecurity measures.

“Our team displayed amazing creativity in adapting existing software for new applications as well as developing new remote operational capabilities,” said GA Vice President and director of DIII-D Richard Buttery. “That has enabled us to continue DIII-D operations with relatively little interruption despite the COVID-19 challenges.”

About General Atomics: Since the dawn of the atomic age, General Atomics innovations have advanced the state of the art across the full spectrum of science and technology – from nuclear energy and defense to medicine and high-performance computing. Behind a talented global team of scientists, engineers, and professionals, GA’s unique experience and capabilities continue to deliver safe, sustainable, economical, and innovative solutions to meet growing global demands. GA’s portfolio of innovative programs includes remotely piloted aircraft, such as the Predator and Reaper; the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) being installed on the new Ford-class aircraft carriers; and a variety of advanced manufacturing programs that are driving innovation in the nation’s Inertial Confinement Fusion program.

About the DIII-D National Fusion Facility. DIII-D is the largest magnetic fusion research facility in the U.S. and has been the site of numerous pioneering contributions to the development of fusion energy science. DIII-D continues the drive toward practical fusion energy with critical research conducted in collaboration with more than 600 scientists representing over 100 institutions worldwide. For more information, visit www.ga.com/diii-d

For more information contact:
Zabrina Johal
Director of Strategic Development

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