PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
AUGMENTED AND VIRTUAL REALITY FOR MINING
AUGMENTED and virtual reality has become more widespread within the mining sector and according to researchers, exciting developments could be on the horizon.
Virtual reality has already been used by numerous universities and organisations in Australia as an educational tool for engineering students and future mine workers.
In recent years, the technology has also been used as a safety training tool for miners and rescue brigades in Australia.
Internationally, virtual reality is emerging as a way to integrate mine planning data for use in the design and planning, resource management, and community and investor relations.
University of New South Wales School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering Professor Serkan Saydam believed the next step for virtual reality in mining was the integration of data through decision-making.
It is an idea he has already examined, having innovated a virtual reality program designed to integrate data for use in the reporting and decision-making process.
Known as ViMINE2, it was developed from the earlier ViMINE, which had been created as an educational tool for the UNSW School of Mines engineering students.
“There’s obviously benefits for training students and the workforce, but my initial idea was about using it for decision-making in feasibility studies,” Professor Saydam said.
“Mine planning engineers and geologists use mine planning information and they use different software packages, so I was dreaming of integrating them.
“So it would be about using this facility to basically rethink different software outputs, accepting it as an input and generating 3D animations of the running mine, but you can also include actual data and change the data; you need to be able to do all the different scenarios.”
Professor Saydam said this could prove more useful than traditionally written reports and studies as a way of imparting information to and impressing investors and senior management teams, allowing them to make decisions more easily.
Despite its potential, Professor Saydam said mining companies had generally thought it had been a good idea, but not compulsory.
He said part of the reluctance to take up technologies such as ViMINE could be attributed to the attitude that virtual reality was still too new and was yet to be user-friendly enough.
“The facilities are also not quite there, it still requires some technological expertise to run these and senior management may not like to use this, they still prefer to read from a report,” Professor Saydam said.
“Currently we can use virtual reality easily with goggles, but imagine a senior management team wearing goggles on their faces while trying to make a decision, it’s not going to happen.
“I think the next level will be using holograms and really being able to show it to senior management teams from a small table.
“People watch movies like Star Wars with holograms appearing and they think ‘what a movie’ but this technology actually already exists.”
Despite the initial reluctance, Professor Saydam believed it was simply a matter of time before attitudes and technology matched up with the needs of the mining industry and virtual technology would be more comprehensively utilised within the sector.
While ViMINE2 has not been taken up commercially, the original ViMINE has proven a big success, with 86 universities and organisations currently utilising the system.
ViMINE allows students to experience various aspects of a mining operation throughout the whole life of a simulated mine from initial exploration to final site rehabilitation.
UNSW was also home to a virtual reality simulator consisting of floor to ceiling screens casting 360-degree 3D images, allowing students to experience hands on learning
without ever having to leave campus.
The Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment (AVIE) gave students the opportunity to walk through 360 degree panoramas of the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory to undertake feasibility testing.
Students were also able to take part in 3D terrain explorations, work through outburst management experience emergency and evacuation scenarios.
Professor Saydam said his team was now working with the university’s psychology department to fully understand the learning capacity involved with virtual reality technology and how it could improve.
“The other question is how effective is virtual reality in learning and teaching,” Professor Saydam said.
“When we use the virtual reality technology in our teaching, students are happy, but we’re never comparing the two because we run the same modules with every student.
“The only outcomes we get is from students who use the virtual reality, so studies should also include students learning with and without virtual reality.”
Supporting Mental Health
Advancements in virtual reality technologies were not limited to mine planning and business decisions.
Associate Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility Dr Shiva Pedram believed virtual reality could soon be used to provide mental health support to miners in remote locations.
She was working with Mines Rescue and Coal Mines Insurance to study the effectiveness of off-the-shelf technologies, such as virtual reality headsets, to deliver virtual therapeutic counselling sessions.
According to the Black Dog Institute up to one in five Australians have experienced symptoms of a mental disorder in any given year, with mine workers being no exception.
Dr Pedram said for these workers, the remote location often served as an impediment to receiving necessary treatment.
“Through the use of new technologies such as virtual reality, there may be an opportunity to elevate the quality of support delivered to injured workers in remote locations,” Dr Pedram said.
“However, study needs to be done to investigate the usefulness of such therapeutic solutions.
“Adapting virtual reality as a therapeutic solution requires a clear understanding of how patients interact with the VR environment, which can guide the numerous decisions regarding the structure and interface of the technology.”
Dr Pedram was no stranger to virtual reality in mining, having worked on evaluating the technology as a safety training tool for miners as part of her PhD.
The project specifically focussed on training rescue brigades for extreme or catastrophic situations.
Much of it was predicated on the idea that while miners have long had comprehensive classroom-based training to learn about the hazards they would encounter on site, it could never be the same as being confronted with these challenges while underground.
To overcome this, industry safety training provider Coal Services developed a cinema-like virtual reality room with a 360-degree screen that was 10 metres in diameter and four metres high.
Up to eight miners in full protective gear could enter the room and experience simulated explosions, gas leaks and routine safety inspections with the help of 12 cameras projecting 3D images with full surround sound.
According to Dr Pedram, virtual reality used in this way could be an effective way of preparing miners and rescue brigades.
“The Australian mining industry has steadily achieved remarkable performance and safety results through continuous improvement of its training standards,” Dr Pedram said.
“Virtual reality-based training is the most recent technology used to enhance miners’ competencies in a safe and controlled environment that allows for replicable testing extreme event scenarios.”
Dr Pedram said there were a number of ways virtual reality was preparing mine workers for day to day operations.
“A range of equipment simulators including dozers, jackleg drill, dragline, haul truck, shovel, continuous miner, longwall and roof bolter are available to train new miners or refresh the knowledge of existing miners,” Dr Pedram said.
According to a LlamaZOO, a Canadian company that creates virtual reality products for mining companies, the safety benefits of using virtual reality in mining could extend well beyond training.
The company believed it was not far off to think that operators could control machinery remotely using the technology to virtually be sitting in the cab of a shovel or haul truck.
Potential future uses could also allow operators to make better use of their downtime by employing virtual reality to escape to relaxing scenes, or even using it to engage at a distance with their families.
Beyond the confines of virtual simulation suites or large head gear, has been the rapid advancements of augmented reality.
Unlike virtual reality, which was designed to be entirely simulated, augmented reality was intended to overlay simulated graphics onto a real-world view.
This would provide less immersion than virtual reality, but more freedom for the user with no need for virtual simulator rooms or headgear.
Rather, it is often achieved through the use of smart phones, smart glasses and other lightweight products.
The development of this technology has already been utilised to track heavy mining equipment, trucks and light vehicles across Australia’s mining sector, with mining contractor Downer reportedly taking up the technology for its fleet in June.
According to a 2016 research paper released by South African academics, augmented reality had the potential to greatly benefit the mining process if the design of an augmented reality application was done effectively.
The researchers from the University of Pretoria and the Tshwane University of Technology found effective uses regarding drilling applications, navigational aid and operator assistance, maintenance and repair, and provision of real-time information.
“Through the use of new technologies such as virtual reality, there may be an opportunity to elevate the quality of support delivered to injured workers in remote locations.”
Image: University of New South Wales. ViMINE allows students to follow through the full life of a mine.
Dr Shiva Pedram worked with Coal Services to assess the effectiveness of its virtual reality training for miners and rescue brigades.
86 universities and organisations are using ViMINE worldwide.