Virtual reality for mining studies at University of Pretoria

The University of Pretoria (UP) will become the first university in Africa to offer a Virtual Reality (VR) Centre for the mining industry, allowing students and mine employees to safely train on safety and other related issues in a simulated mining environment.

Set to open its doors in 2013, the R 18.8 million new facility at UP’s Department of Mining Engineering will be able to realistically simulate a range of mining functions, from accident reconstruction and risk analysis through to responding to potential hazards and testing evacuation procedures – and all in a low risk, high impact learning environment.  The new VR Centre has been made possible through the financial support of Anglo American’s Kumba Iron Ore and will also serve the country’s broader mining industry.  Consisting of floor‐to‐ceiling screens, the VR Simulator at UP will cast 360‐degree 3D images against the dark surrounding panels with cinematic clarity and with highly realistic sound effects.   Says, Norman Mbazima, CEO of Kumba, “A virtual reality centre for the study of mine design, not only creates a safe environment for study, but by mimicking reality will deliver mining engineers to the industry that are better prepared for the conditions they might face when deployed to a mine.” The project forms part of Kumba’s diverse corporate social investment programme that saw more than R300 million invested in social and community development over the past two years; with another R320 million scheduled to be spent this year.   “The mandate from Kumba was that the new facility had to be highly interactive.  Their investment in cutting-edge 3-D technology will allow our students and employees in the mining industry to move around in a realistic virtual mining world, with real emphasis to surface mining as well,” says Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman, Head of the Department of Mining Engineering at UP.   “Virtual reality centres in other parts of the world have been highly effective in improving mining productivity and mine design, and most importantly, protecting lives through improved health and safety awareness. This new facility will take our students beyond the boundaries of traditional education, and into experiential learning in a safe and forgiving virtual world.   “The Kumba Virtual Reality (VR) 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 Prof 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 understanding of complex mining operations throughout a mine 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 financial 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,” says Prof Webber-Youngman.   Virtual reality simulation products have been on the market for the past few years, but have recently undergone major improvements in quality and speed. The University of Pretoria has been involved in discussions with the University of New South Wales who were the pioneers 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, from hard rock to coal.     “Although there has been a downward trend over the last few years in fatalities on 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 try and 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,” says Prof Webber-Youngman.

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