Virtual reality (VR) solutions provider Simulated Training Solutions’ (STS’s) world-first VR blast wall and its VR cube have resulted in efficient, effective and memorable training programmes for Anglo American Platinum’s Engineering Services Training Centre (ESTC), in Randfontein, and the Murray & Roberts Cementation Training Academy (MRTA), near Carletonville, says STS VR head Johan Bouwer.
He explains that the cube at the ESTC is the first developed “in South Africa, for South Africans”, as VR cubes are normally ordered and shipped from international suppliers. To his knowledge, the STS VR cube is the only product of its kind being used for a mining training application in Africa.
The 2.3 m × 2.3 m × 2.3 m VR cube was developed specifically for the needs of the ESTC, and currently runs a training programme for electricians, specifically enabling trainees to experience the step-by-step process of racking a medium-voltage breaker, building muscle memory and allowing for greater retention.
Bouwer says: “[The] power of VR is that I can safely ‘electrocute’ someone if he or she makes a critical mistake . . . there’ll be a loud noise and a flash, and the room will go black. . . that experience will stick with the trainee far longer than a simple text-based explanation.”
The trainee’s interaction with the virtual environment is on a one-to-one timescale, as the person has to react to everything virtually and physically (or “vhysically”) as if in a real-world scenario. The programme tracks the mistakes of individual trainees so that facilitators can advise on specific areas of improvement.
He adds that STS is working on developing a programme for breaker phasing and that, in the future, the ESTC will have VR training programmes for many of the modules covered at the training facility.
Bouwer notes that the VR cube was installed in October 2017. The development process took two to three months, and included testing materials for the physical construction of the cube, comprising canvas and aluminium frames. Other components include four projectors, a high-powered computer, a VR headset, a helmet tracker, controllers and the STS-developed software.
He says the cube enables audience viewing and interaction, unlike VR headsets, enabling the instructor to observe and advise the trainee inside the cube, while fellow students observe the participant’s progress and mistakes.
Bouwer says VR and augmented reality (AR) will bridge the gap between ageing experts and new recruits. “VR and AR train effectively, efficiently and in a manner that relates and is accessible to today’s youth.”
He notes that training programmes can never replace real-world experience, but that the objective is to merge the practical, text-based and VR training to accelerate the training process, while ensuring that trainees actually retain the material and can apply it in near-real-world scenarios before their final assessment.
The VR Blast Wall
The VR blast wall was designed and developed by STS in 2015 at the request of Sasol Nitrate and Glencore. STS installed the solution at the Mopani Central Training Centre, in Zambia.
“We worked through numerous variables in collaboration with explosives experts . . . to simulate overblast and underblast scenarios,” says Bouwer.
STS has developed the only three VR walls in the world. Besides Mopani, there is one at Anglo American’s Tumela mine, in Limpopo, and at the MRTA. STS is developing the first-ever underground VR wall for Glencore’s Thorncliffe chrome mine, in Limpopo.
He explains that the first stage of the training programme focuses on how to properly mark off the blast face. The system overlays the correct template on the trainees’ patterns to highlight if, and where, mistakes were made. Trainees then have to set the timers – with the system providing feedback on the proper timing – and observe the outcomes of the blast.
After the detonation, the trainee has the option to replay and review the blast. A visual representation of the rock fracturing shows in step-by-step slow motion how the primary cut first breaks up the centre rock face, followed by an alternating diamond pattern outwards.
The MRTA wall is in a refurbished shipping container that includes a 9-m-long printed canvas, made to look like a stope approaching the blast face. The canvas displays various geological and structural hazards painted along the stope that trainees must identify before approaching the VR rock face.
MRTA education training and development executive Tony Pretorius believes that the VR wall, as well as other VR and AR technologies, is superior to traditional teaching and training methods for underground blasting practices because it is more immersive and, therefore, more effective.
Based on their successful execution of the VR wall and cube system, two companies have requested proposals on multiple (rear projection) surface stopes from STS3D. This solution will allow a trainee or miner to be fully immersed in a virtual stope. This would complement the traditional mock mine, providing solutions to endless scenarios. The VR stope could even replicate conditions that were experienced just prior to a fall-of-ground incident. This would be another world-first for STS.