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South African mining sector seen revolving round digital technologies in the future-Mining Weekly

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The future of the mining industry in South Africa will revolve round digital developments, asserted University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Mining Engineering lecturer Dr Bekir Genc during his address at the Mining into the Future conference, which took place at the Birchwood Conference Centre, in Boksburg, Gauteng, earlier this month.

He said that information technologies would help the sector achieve its goals of better working conditions and improved mine economics.

Genc stated that the digital revolution was happening everywhere, and that it would soon occur in the local mining industry, “if not today, then tomorrow for sure”.

He noted that, in recognition of this, the Wits School of Mining Engineering had launched a Digital Mine project to support the existing strategy of the mining industry to continuously improve working conditions and mine economics.

“Digital technologies are fundamental for efficient and safe mining, where all systems are optimised,” said Genc.

He added that this required the clarity of multiple sources of underground data communicated to a surface control room and back to the workplace in real time.

“This is not happening yet as it requires an enormous amount of work, but some parties have started trying to establish these systems.”

In the first phase of the project, the school built a mock-up of an underground tunnel. This allowed Wits to simulate an underground mining environment that could be used for teaching, learning and research.

The 70 m tunnel cost about R15-million, and features a stope, rescue bay and lamp room, built with sponsorship from gold miner Gold Fields, mine support technology company New Concept Mining and gold miner Sibanye Gold. Research is being conducted into smart surveying and mapping (visualisation) systems; climate control systems and energy savings (particularly important in deeper-level mines); and smart rock engineering systems, which can monitor rock mass movement and predict seismic events.

Additionally, the Wits School of Mining Engineering is conducting research on smart data processing, which can locate people and assets and monitor their performance, and recognise actions and detect abnormalities, such as recognising that someone is ill.

Smart mine design, mine planning and decision-making are also being studied.

The Digital Mine project involves four phases, Genc explained.

Phase one comprised the building of the mock-up mine for research, teaching and learning, which has already been completed. Phase two comprises the building of a laboratory hosting digital technologies inside the mine, which is in the advanced planning stages.

Phases three and four include the monitoring of an underground environment for optimised mine design and processes, and integrating a digital mine with a digital city and communities.

“These phases are still at the conceptual stage and will require further funding to develop,” said Genc.

He said he believed that the Digital Mine project would benefit the mining sector by providing access to a safe, smart mine laboratory reaching into the surrounding community on a multisensor geographic information system platform (once the lab has been developed), and providing knowledge for industry so that it could collect appropriate and accurate information to optimise mine designs and processes.

This would enable continuous and predictive operations, while having a positive impact on mine efficiency and security. The latter is of particular relevance to gold mines, which put both mineshafts and mine employees at risk as a result of the activities of illegal miners.

Genc noted that, with digitisation, the concept of a mine-to-order, or demand mining, would become a real possibility, thereby contributing to productivity of the mine’s bottomline and transforming the mining industry through information technology.

“Most importantly, a digital mine will accelerate the process of reaching the industry’s zero-harm goal,” he emphasised.

Moreover, Genc highlighted that a variety of technologies that were currently in development would also help make the digital mine a reality.

“Underground communication systems will enable real-time intervention to manage all types of risk. Underground drones will be able to see, map and collect data, and communicate it, and can also be used to map abandoned mines that are too dangerous to send people into,” he said.

Genc added that smart data processing and three-dimensional, or 3D, modelling “were planned in the future”, and would require participation from various schools across a number of faculties at Wits.

The conference was a collaborative partnership between Caterpillar, Barloworld Equipment (as the Cat Southern African dealer), the Wits School of Mining Engineering and the Wits Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems.

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