The technology offering a safer and more productive future

Technology at the forefront of the industry is helping to make minesites safer and more productive.

Ranging from drones with 3D mapping payloads attached to them to virtual reality (VR) headsets giving a whole new sense of interactivity with training exercises, minesites all over the world are embracing these new technologies.

Drones

Seemingly every industry has embraced the use of drones in one way or another.

However, in the confines of a kilometres-deep underground mine, it is a completely different story.

Most traditional drones cannot fly autonomously at these depths.

Down in the tunnels, GPS cannot be accessed, light barely penetrates and line of sight can be a luxury – but an Australian startup called Emesent has released Hovermap, the world’s first autonomous light detection and ranging (LiDAR) mapping payload for industrial drones.

Developed by the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group at CSIRO, it was recently launched commercially after five years of research and development and rigorous testing at mines in Australia, Japan, China, the United States and Canada.

“Hovermap is the first drone payload of its kind, using LiDAR to provide both mapping and autonomy functions,” Emesent CEO and Co-Founder Dr Stefan Hrabar said.

“It allows drones to fly autonomously even in GPS-denied environments to collect valuable data. That was not previously possible.

“There is increasing demand for these industries to digitise and remotely inspect their assets, but access to hazardous areas and the lack of GPS have been limiting factors until now.

“Hovermap’s unique capabilities are helping to overcome these hurdles.”

The Hovermap technology offers a significant upgrade over conventional cavity-monitoring systems, according to Dr Hrabar.

“The way they try to measure stopes now is with a laser scanner attached to a long pole,” he said.

“The surveyor has to go to the stope. It is a dangerous place to be and you only get a scan from one viewpoint. The laser scanner doesn’t see everything, it can’t see around corners, which means you cannot accurately calculate the volume of the stope. The data it captures is pretty sparse.

“With a drone, you can launch it from a safe distance and you get complete coverage. This reduces shadowing, meaning you can get very accurate volume estimates of the stope and the point density.”

According to Dr Hrabar, there are two main safety applications associated with the Hovermap technology.

“Sending in a Hovermap-enabled drone to autonomously map and explore these areas keeps the surveyors safe and provides data at unprecedented resolution and quality,” he said.

“This data provides new valuable insights, leading to productivity gains and increased safety from better understanding of the geology.”

Virtual reality

Imagine putting your worker in the middle of a cave-in or a dangerous gas leak, without putting them at risk in any way.

With virtual reality, not only can you do precisely this, but you can do it safely.

“We can let people fail in the virtual world over and over again, so when they actually get into the real-world environment they can identify the risks because they have already done it in a virtual environment,” GHD Immersive Digital Solutions Australian Lead Rohan Koenig said.

“They can learn through failure by virtually falling from heights or electrocution, over and over again.”

VR has been making waves in the industry in recent years.

While the technology itself is not new, recent advancements mean VR is being seriously considered as a possible alternative to traditional forms of training and is now widely applied in minesites all over the world. It is currently used in training programs to increase engagement, understanding and safety.

“We are doing work for an underground coal mine in Queensland and we have been asked to provide some assistance with training staff and familiarising them with an underground mine,” Mr Koenig said.

“With a laptop and a VR headset we can have 20 people walking around as a group in an underground mine.”

Using VR has many benefits over traditional methods of training, according to Mr Koenig.

“When you are sitting there with a PowerPoint presentation, everyone has seen the slides a hundred times over so they don’t engage with the training,” Mr Koenig said.

“VR provides an engagement with the training because you are in the environment and you have awareness of how big a truck is as opposed to being shown a picture on a PowerPoint slide where you have no concept of size – it creates a whole different setting.

“You can create variety within the systems of VR you cannot create on a PowerPoint slide.

“The program will randomise the scenario so it will be different every time, thus maintaining trainee engagement and training effectiveness. This is because it creates interest and a bit of fun at the same time.”

These VR training modules can be accessed from anywhere in the world so trainers do not have to travel to conduct sessions.

“If you have three headsets on the minesite you can be training three people at a time with the instructor in Perth or London, as long as they have an internet connection,” Mr Koenig said.

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