JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Innovative technology solutions for the struggling mining sector will be the focus of a new unit at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), which brings together various disciplines under former School of Mining Engineering head Professor Fred Cawood.
The new Wits Mining Institute will house the school’s already advanced digital mine project – the development of a mock mine within the Chamber of Mines building on Wits University’s West Campus – and a college network tasked with the development of twenty-first century artisan and technician skills.
The institute’s declared mission is to make mining safer and more sustainable by harnessing fast-developing technologies and practices from different sectors.
“Sadly, these are not always incorporated into mining applications quickly enough to address the industry’s many challenges,” said Cawood, who added that the institute’s breakthrough was the forging of working links across the university’s schools and research units.
He said that the Wits Mining Institute would draw on a battery of cross-discipline expertise, ranging from architecture, public health, law, global change, population migration, urban development, electronics and computer science.
These disciplines would help to augment the already substantial work being done within the School of Mining Engineering through its Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems and the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry.
Encouraging progress was already being made to show the path forward for both established deep-level mines and new operations.
Work on converting indoor positioning systems to underground applications was paving the way towards the development of an automated tunnel for mining at depths no longer viable or safe for humans.
Advanced software, sensors and related high-technology infrastructure were facilitating developments like real-time underground airflow modelling and access systems that could automatically exclude personnel restricted by health issues or legal compliance requirements.
These interventions were bringing South Africa closer to the concept of the intelligent mine, where the data required for good decision-making would be available in real time to inform automated responses that removed the risk of human error.
Safe and more efficient operations were within reach, provided developers could apply the “remarkable technologies available to us”.
The 67 m life-size mine tunnel at Wits University’s mock vertical shaft, stope, lamp room and control room are used for both teaching and research into aspects such as security, systems integration and video analytics.
Modern skills would be developed in line with the needs of mechanised and digital mines, some of which were having to make do with last century’s skills.
The major funders of the digital mining infrastructure include Gold Fields, Aveng Mining, the Minerals and Education Trust Fund, Wits, New Concept Mining and Sibanye Gold, which is currently the largest sponsor.
The research agenda is significant, with 16 postgraduates using the facility for their research and ten undergraduate students gaining digital mining competence, Cawood outlined in a release to Creamer Media’s Mining Weekly Online.