Theme Parks, The Grand Egyptian Museum, And Your Local Mine – What Could They Have In Common?

​The entertainment industry long ago realised the value of virtual reality. The technology allows us to walk with dinosaurs, and do any number of absolutely amazing things that are 'virtually' impossible to do in real life. The recently opened Grand Egyptian Museum for example offers intending visitors the opportunity to take a virtual walk through the museum from the comfort of their own mobile app prior to booking a 'real' visit. They can then use that same mobile app in the museum to navigate their way to the displays they decided in their virtual tour they wanted to see for real. 

The museum has also taken the technology a step further with augmented reality using HoloLens to give visitors an interactive taste of ancient Egypt. Where VR creates a simulated or digital world, AR superimposes digital information (a holograph if you like) onto a real world scene, allowing the wearer of the 'magic glasses' to see a particular 'scene' or visual representation of data, in relation to their location. In other words, a council worker about to do some digging could don a set of HoloLens glasses and 'see' all the underground infrastructure in the vicinity instead of finding out the hard way that there is a water mains or sewer pipe right below where they want to dig. Digital data from the past, or created by projections of the future, can also be visualised in this way.

Augmented Reality And Virtual Reality – Their Role In ….

Mine Rehabilitation

This type of technology has incredible potential for mining applications, some of which is already being implemented, much of which is yet to come. Just imagine being transported back into the past to see, just as though you're standing right there, what a mine site looked like before mining operations commenced. With the data collecting technology available to us now, those images could be more accurate than ever before in the future. For instance, if the entire area to be mined is accurately mapped and photographed by drones before a single stone is moved or tree felled, that data could be used to create highly accurate 3D imagery for use with technology like AR. In this respect, the advantage for accurate rehabilitation of mine sites is enormous!

That's just one tiny aspect of the scope of this type of technology. Mining companies like Rio Tinto, BHP et al are already capitalising on the huge benefits across a range of operational areas. Notably, both AR and VR are vastly improving the way companies and employees perform many processes. 

Occupational Health And Safety

AR and VR are invaluable for health and safety, one of the first areas to utilise the technology. By allowing employees to experience real life emergency situations from the safety of a desk, companies are able to provide very accurate and very specific training around a wide range of incidents and emergencies. Rock falls, noxious fumes, fires, equipment failure, flooding, and so on can all be created virtually for this purpose. Further, scenarios can be escalated to really test out employees and put them on their mettle.

The technology also has applications for local communities, particularly emergency and first responders within those communities. With a few tweaks, the same software could create 'whole of community' mining related emergencies to serve as training opportunities for these people as well.

Additionally, the use of smart algorithms plus AR can be used within operational sites to detect potential hazards before they happen, or keep employees appraised of critical information whilst they're working on other tasks ie the glasses could provide real-time views of nearby gas monitors to underground miners or keep them informed of what's happening above ground in areas prone to natural hazards.

Equipment Maintenance

RAG, the largest coal mining company in Germany, is using an EU-funded AR program called EMIMSAR. The software uses data from sensors on the equipment used in the company's coalmines (belt conveyers, loaders, long wall equipment etc). This data includes information about temperature, noise, acceleration rates and so on. The data feeds a knowledge-based maintenance system that combines this information with manufacturer and background information about the various components and the equipment. The programme then generates AR visualisations of the equipment, allowing maintenance staff to monitor the condition of individual parts within the equipment, notably the heavy-duty components. The result is more accurate maintenance planning, fewer breakdowns, and fewer potentially dangerous accidents caused by equipment malfunctions.

The same or similar programs would be invaluable for improving equipment maintenance in all mining environments.

Planning And Development

BHP employees are now able to 'step inside' the development of the company's huge South Flank iron ore project without actually 'stepping inside'. This enables the team to carry out design and safety reviews in unprecedented ways. From their office desks in Perth, some 1200 kilometres away from where the action is happening up in the Pilbara, they can walk around, climb into, and inspect the project (now and in the future) in minute detail. This includes the major process and non-process infrastructure such as conveyers, the crushing and screening plant, the railway and loading facilities, the workshop and stockyard, the refuelling facility etc. What they see and experience allows them to come up with better, more accurate, and safer designs without necessarily having stepped foot on the project. The result will be a far safer, more efficient operation.

The advantages don't end there though. Upon completion, the project will be handed over to those tasked with the responsibility of starting and then operating it and this extensive body of intelligent data will likewise be handed over. This will provide enormous safety benefits and improved efficiency into the future of the operation.

Operations

VR and AR have many operational benefits including facilitating accurate processes, better planning, and more effective assessments. For example, it can be used to slow down blast sequences so engineers can see exactly what's happening. They can then simulate different patterns to see which ones are more effective and thus improve blast and drill rates to increase mining yields. Likewise, operators responsible for placing these explosives can practice or experiment with different rock types via AR and VR to learn more about how they shatter and thus reduce the chances of unexpected accidents.

Like the council worker we mentioned earlier, AR technology will allow someone on site to simultaneously see a range of workings and features in the immediate vicinity of where they happen to be standing. If they're about to drill a few holes that means they can avoid hitting other openings in an underground situation, or drilling through existing underground workings if drilling from above ground. Being able to 'see' underground workings certainly makes operating an open pit over the top of them a whole lot easier and safer! Ditto for being able to 'see' features like stress and fault zones, and visualise their potential impact on operations. 

Likewise, AR and VR can provide accurate forecasting around the potential for tailings dams leaks, pollution, and the adverse effects of a mining operation on the surrounding environment, allowing companies to effectively put in place strategies to negate or minimise these. 

Employee Communications

Some of the latest AR and VR technology is allowing office-based staff to interact with staff on site in unprecedented ways. Boeing has been using AR to provide wiring instructions to technicians doing the wiring in their planes – the instructions are viewed through their glasses allowing them to read and work at the same time. Taken a step further, AR could be used to let head-office staff 'see' what staff on site are seeing and step them through various procedures, or collaborate with them to perform certain tasks.

Along the same lines is keeping management, the people who make the decisions, better informed through AR and VR technologies. This should reduce decision making times because, let's face it, being an actual part of the process even virtually, is more enlightening than reading a stack of facts and figures on paper! It's also quicker to take a half hour virtual journey assisted by augmented reality glasses than it is to read, and digest, those facts and figures.

Communications With Stake Holders

One of the most innovative uses however for this technology is keeping stakeholders in the loop. Making AR scenarios available for local communities for example so that they can see what the project will look like and understand more accurately the ramifications for them as a community is one use. They'd be able to see in situ what the new roads, railways, buildings, and the mine itself will look like when constructed. They could also take a 'virtual' walk into the operations to learn more about how they work. There's no doubting the fact that with understanding often comes acceptance, and this is a crucial step in gaining that all-important social licence to operate. 

Shareholders likewise can take part in an AR or VR journey from mine site to market, allowing them to better understand the processes involved. This can help encourage investment and investor confidence. 

Of course any system is only as good as the data it uses. Currently, given that AR in particular is in its infancy, using historic data is one of the major issues with applications that use this technology. Most historic data available today wasn't collected with the intention of using it to create 3D images. Therefore, its predominantly 2 dimensional in nature. That means companies involved in creating these advanced applications need to convince customers that accurate and comprehensive data collection now will reap huge dividends in the future. 

The truth is that we don't know where technology will take us in the next 50 years. However, ensuring we cover all bases now, regardless of whether or not we can use that data immediately, will go a long way towards helping future generations of programming whiz kids design applications that are highly accurate, highly predictive, and incredibly useful.
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Wednesday, 26 June 2019
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