Even in the contemporary world, the mining sector remains to be extremely hazardous. As excavations go farther below the surface, the dangers to the health and safety of miners increase from toxic gases, severe heat, and geological instability that can result in cave-ins. The chances of accidents also rise while operating complicated and heavy equipment in such a high-stakes environment. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that mining companies have placed safety technologies at the forefront of their investment priorities.

According to a survey conducted between December 2021 and February 2022, GlobalData analysts discovered that collision avoidance, fatigue detection, and remote-control vehicle technology were the top areas for investment focus in the mining industry over the next two years. The survey covered 138 mines. Compared to prior years, significantly more companies said that they would be investing in these safety-related technologies which will enhance productivity and reduce accident risks.

Leveraging virtual reality (VR) for training

Before handling the machinery in a real-world setting, mining professionals can enhance their abilities through training, which is one crucial area where emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision, sensors, and 5G can help.

GlobalData mining analysts assert that a direct reduction in on-site injuries and fatalities can be achieved through a combination of remote monitoring of on-site risks and immersive training for new inexperienced hires.

Finland-based mining equipment innovator Normet global product manager Harri Sonninen said: “Virtual learning and augmented reality learning programmes are the future of training in the mining sector.

“Simulations provide trainee operators with the opportunity to experience equipment in a realistic virtual setting without putting themselves at risk, damaging equipment or using expensive resources.

“Additionally, VR training has the benefit of offering continual performance feedback and the ability to record the session for later evaluation and provide clearly reported data from training.”

Further, Sonninen added: “We’ve been building our training simulators since 2010, before the market was even ready, so we’re fully prepared for the requests that have started coming in recent years.

“Most other companies involved in VR training are software companies; no one else is implementing full-scale 3D digital twin technology into simulators like we have been. There is a massive difference between simulators using copy layouts and our digital twin simulators, which are exact digital representations of our physical machinery.

“Introducing VR training to the mining sector and making it a safer industry has become one of our main drivers.”

How Normet created history

Normet, to date, has prioritised its VR simulator training on its sprayed concrete operators. The training programme was developed in conjunction with EFNARC to comply with strict standards and safety requirements since 1989. EFNARC is the international association of Experts for Specialised Construction and Concrete Systems.

According to Sonninen, concrete spraying is a distinct technique that calls for a high level of manual skills and is both equipment and material intensive. In addition, the material consumption is neither constant nor fixed to the theoretical amount to be sprayed. It differs based on several factors, such as rock surface quality and corrugation, concrete mix quality and properties, the necessary layer thickness, equipment, ambient conditions, operator skill level and alertness and others.

About one-third of the overall costs of sprayed-concrete buildings are for concrete, with the remaining costs being influenced by other factors such as the quantity of concrete sprayed and the efficiency of equipment utilisation and others. To increase safety, environmental impact, and economic effectiveness throughout the process, everything must be done to get the concrete usage to the optimal level.

Sonninen said: “Normet is in a unique position to offer training tools for each part of that process.”

Normet will introduce a new method for its scaling equipment into the market this year, marking yet another historic first.

Normet’s scaling VR simulator empowers customers to comprehend the proper techniques for manoeuvring amidst falling loose rocks and master systematic scaling control to avert significant safety risks in real-life situations. The company further announces its plans for additional simulator launches in the coming year, catering to the growing demand for customer training.

Unleashing the potential of digital twin technology in mining

The mining sector is infamous for being risk averse and slow to accept new technologies, but the increasing emphasis on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and the necessity to increase safety underground is driving a shift in the mindset of the industry.

GlobalData’s 2022 report titled “Augmented Reality in Mining,” says that enterprise applications of augmented reality (AR) are predicted to account for 65% of AR revenue by 2030. During this period, GlobalData analysts estimate that AR revenue will exceed $150bn, a substantial increase from the $7bn global AR market value in 2020. This projection indicates a profound transformation in the functioning of various sectors, including mining, in the years to come.

The prediction is further supported by GlobalData’s Company Filing Analytics, which demonstrates an increase in the frequency of mining companies discussing AR in their earnings reports. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of VR and AR-related references increased by four times.

The use of digital twin technology for research and development (R&D) and immersive training is still in its infancy, but Normet opines that it is an interesting field which will support safer experimentation and innovation in the mining industry.

A digital twin is a 3D virtual representation of a single or collection of physical objects. Digital twins of cities are being generated. To stimulate the behaviour of the object, it uses real-time data from sensors on it. Through the application of AI, real-time analytics, visualisation, and simulation tools, the technology can assist in detecting, preventing, predicting, and optimising the physical environment.

While the concept of digital twins has been around for a while, their practical implementation in the real world is relatively recent, with some industries embracing them more than others. Unfortunately, the mining sector has been one of the slower adopters. Nevertheless, Normet stands out as an innovative company, leading the way ahead of others in embracing digital twin technology.

Sonninen said: “We have plenty of digital twins of our equipment, which we have developed over a number of years. We’re focusing on this technology more and more as part of our equipment research and development.

“Digital twin technology provides a huge amount of R&D data, which allows us to fail faster and implement corrections that make our equipment safer and more productive for our customers.

“3D digital twin components can test mechanical aspects, automated functions like boom movements, and user interface before we produce any physical hardware.

”Digital twin technology reduces development costs because it is faster and more efficient and helps mining companies take a big step in creating safer workspaces for their employees.”

Sonninen added: “The whole operational process can be built in digital twin format.”

When it comes to creating VR training simulations and extended reality (XR) solutions, Normet is in the lead with R&D digital twins already in place for the company’s equipment.