Virtual dig to mine real solutions

May 5, 2006

It's a difficult task preparing rescuers to be sent deep underground after a mining disaster. But a Canadian university is pioneering a 3-D simulation that will make training that bit more realistic. Stephen Strauss reports

It is every miner's and mine owner's worst nightmare - a sudden explosion that leaves people trapped below ground. A rescue team will be sent into the mine, but its members are unfamiliar with every twist in the tunnels, which can collectively be longer than the streets of a small city.

Rescuers can study a two-dimensional schematic, but that can never give them a true sense of what it will be like underground, where quick decisions will have to be made in what inevitably will be a frightening and chaotic situation.

What to do? Maybe it is time to order the rescuers to don 3-D glasses and run through an immersive simulation that lets them experience, with a tingling sense of reality, what they may face in the smoky mine.

This scenario is one of the premises of a virtual reality simulation developed at Ontario's Laurentian University in what has been billed as the world's first virtual reality laboratory designed to model data related to mining. "The idea is that mine safety groups can take the plan of the mine and train people on a disaster experience," says Matthew Haywood, a research associate with the Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (Mirarco) - a collaboration between Laurentian's Mining Research Centre, the US Government and the private sector.

What may be the most interesting feature of the simulation is how it represents the way Mirarco, with its C$1.5 million (£740,000) virtual reality system, has been trying to fundamentally alter how the masses of data that ever more complex operations generate are seen and interpreted around the world.

The changes grow out of an elementary observation. "When we looked at the data that had been been amassed, we realised that all mines are three-dimensional. To truly examine and understand them, we had to look at things in a three-dimensional way," says Peter Kaiser, the Laurentian professor who heads Mirarco.

While the conclusion sounds obvious, when they looked for technologies to analyse the multidimensionality of mining data, the Laurentian researchers learnt that there was no virtual reality software designed to interpret mine and mining exploration issues. So it was with an eye to filling this gap and providing new ways for researchers to understand fundamental mining data that the facility was established.

The simulations are only part of what has been created. There is also Mirarco's visualisation of mining data itself. It has, for example, recently worked with a US company that wants to put a shaft mine below an open-pit mine. To understand how the two operations will interact over time, Mirarco's people are developing a 4-D simulation - the fourth dimension being time - that shows the two extraction methods' interaction over a few years. In some cases a fifth dimension - the price of metals - is factored into the simulation. The resulting images can show graphically how price changes translate into various parts of an ore body slipping in and out of profitability.

Elegant virtual reality representations with a Mirarco connection are fast becoming de rigueur when Canadian mining companies want to show their property and its development to investors or financial analysts.

The facility has impressed other countries, and Mirarco is establishing a virtual reality mining facility at China's Northeastern University and is working in Japan, Switzerland and Australia.

Mirarco has grown into an operation with 40 staff that sees itself as paving the way for the future.

"One of the driving elements is that the gaming industry is going to be 3-D, and this will drive down the cost of the hardware. Virtual reality is going to be, I shouldn't say in every bedroom, but in every family room. So what we in a sense have done is started to develop capacity ahead of what we think will be the ultimate technology," Kaiser says. "The ultimate technology will mean that every mine has the capability to do things in 3-D."
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