The University of Pretoria (UP) is to become the first higher education institution in Africa to offer a virtual reality (VR) centre for the mining industry, allowing students and mine employees to safely train for safety and related issues in a simulated mining environment.
The R18.8-million facility at the UP’s Department of Mining Engineering has been made possible by the financial support of Anglo American’s Kumba Iron Ore.
The centre will serve the country’s broader mining industry and is set to open its doors in 2013.
The facility will provide simulated scenarios covering a range of mining functions – from accident reconstruction and risk analysis to responding to potential hazards and testing evacuation procedures – all in a low-risk, high-impact learning environment.
Consisting of floor-to-ceiling screens, the VR simulator will cast 360˚ three-dimensional (3D) images against the surrounding dark panels, with cinematic clarity and realistic sound effects.
“A VR centre for the study of mine design not only creates a safe environment for study, but also delivers mining engineers who will be better prepared for the conditions they might face when they are deployed to a mine,” says Kumba CEO Norman Mbazima.
The project forms part of Kumba’s diverse corporate social investment programme, which entails investment of more than R300-million in social and community development over the past two years, with another R320-million spent this year.
“The mandate from Kumba was that the new facility had to be highly interactive. Their investment in cutting-edge 3D technology will allow our students and employees in the mining industry to move around in a realistic virtual mining world, with real emphasis on surface mining,” says UP Department of Mining Engineering Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman.
VR centres in other parts of the world have been highly effective in improving mining productivity and mine design and, most impor- tantly, protecting lives through improved health and safety awareness. This new facility will take the students beyond the boundaries of traditional education and into experiential learning in a safe and forgiving virtual world.
“The Kumba Virtual Reality Centre for Mine Design will simulate high-risk scenarios in a safe and controlled environment where the consequences of any unsafe acts can be powerfully demonstrated without causing any actual loss of life and damage to property.
“Undergraduate mining students will be able to integrate different conceptual and software modelling techniques, incorporating geology models, mineral extraction methods, mine planning and design and mining systems in a VR environment,” says Webber-Youngman.
Further benefits include the ability to virtually design a complex mining operation from the ground up. The customised design packages will allow trainees to build their under- standing of complex mining operations throughout a mine’s life cycle and show the visual and environmental consequences of their technical decisions.
“By improving the ability of mining engineers to take into account the long-term environmental consequences of their finan- cial and technical decisions in a virtual environment, there will be significant economic, environmental and safety benefits to the industry and surrounding communities in the real world,” he says.
VR simulation products have been on the market for the past few years, but recently undergone major improvements in quality and speed. The UP has been involved in discussions with the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and South African service providers to use and/or co-develop modules that simulate a range of different mine environments – from surface to underground and from hard rock to coal.
“Although there has been a downward trend over the last few years in fatalities at South African mines, there is still a lot to be done to achieve the zero harm objective embraced by all mining companies. In addition to proactive safety training, VR technology allows for the reconstruction of actual mining incidents for forensic investigation purposes to prevent their recurrence in future.
“By investing in the Virtual Reality Centre, Kumba is living out its belief that all injuries are preventable and its commitment to making safety a way of life – both inside and outside the workplace,” concludes Webber-Youngman.