Virtual reality is not just for amusement. In the mining industry, this technological tool is improving miner safety. 

miner safety-boss magazineAnyone connected with the mining industry understands there are risks involved. Keeping those risks at a minimum is always a priority. Along with traditional approaches that involve land surveying and exploration, there is a contemporary method that is making a significant difference: that method involves the use of virtual reality technology.

What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality is a type of software-generated simulation that creates what appears to be a three-dimensional scene. The detail of the simulation allows users to experience situations without actually having to travel to any destination. In many industries, this type of technology is utilized as a tool to test reaction times and responses to different kinds of visual and audio stimulation.

How Does This Relate to Mining?
The use of virtual reality tools makes it possible to replicate the conditions found at a drilling site. By supplying the program with specific data about the physical site, it is possible to allow miners and others to enter the field and replicate what would happen in a real setting if certain actions took place. The information gathered during the sessions can be used to improve working conditions and increase safety levels before anyone attempts to work at the real site.

Creating Space for the Testing
The owners of mining operations can turn to experts who provide settings for the virtual reality simulations to take place. One of the more prominent players in the field is Mines Rescue. The company provides a theater that includes the use of multiple projection screens. These screens make it possible to create a virtual view of a drilling site from every direction.

When the equipment and software are activated, participants are placed in the theater and can interact with the simulation in real time. Depending on the information provided for the setting creation, it is possible to project what would happen at the site if a tunnel collapsed. It is also possible to simulate what would happen if a sinkhole were to develop directly under a piece of heavy equipment.

What Does the Testing Accomplish?
The value of these simulations is they can help save lives. As noted by Steve Tonegato, State Operations Manager of Mines Rescue, simulations help to create possible events that cannot be manufactured in a real-world setting in advance.

“It puts them in situations that can’t be replicated in the real world…You can’t light fires underground, you can’t have smoke coming at you, and you can’t put people in high pressure situations in real mines where they have to make decisions, but you can do that here.”

miner safety-boss magazineIs This Application Different from Gaming?
While virtual reality is common with gaming today, the application used for projecting issues at mining sites is more complex. This has led to references of what is known as mixed reality. Considered more in depth than gaming applications, the result is something that comes as close to imitating real-life situations as possible.

Tonegato explains mixed reality in this manner: “Mixed reality is something that is very unique. People see a lot of virtual reality, especially in gaming which has sensational graphics, but this is a place where not only does everything look real but you can also interact.”

Does Mixed or Virtual Reality Really Save Lives?
While the value of mixed reality as a training tool is evident, will the effort really save lives? Ethel Nyembe, Head of Small Enterprise at Standard Bank, believes that it is already doing so.

“Innovation and technology are game changers in the mining sector. Minimising risks means maintaining production and reducing lost-time incidents,” says Nyembe. “Given that mining companies are operating under many constraints, it is to their credit that they have adopted all the technology they can to protect their people. Achieving this has meant investing in computer generated, advanced visualisation techniques and tools that have crossed over from the world of video gaming.”

Expect to hear more about the use of virtual reality in training mining professionals and in evaluating the feasibility of new drilling sites. Between the options to prepare for possible risks and taking action that helps to prevent them from happening, the potential to keep personnel safe and increase productivity at the same time will mean more productivity and better working conditions for everyone.