Digital mining research lab receives R15m funding

April 3rd, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

The University of the Witwatersrand’s Mining Institute (WMI) has launched the Sibanye Stillwater Digital Mining Laboratory (DigiMine) on 28 March 2018 after receiving R15-million funding from the mining company for the digital mining research centre to help develop 21stcentury skills for the mining industry.

The centre’s research focuses primarily on safety (“zero-harm mining”) and increased productivity, both of which have become increasingly challenging as lower quality ore grades require more efficient mining at greater depths. For this reason, most of the lab’s research is also focused on underground mining with real-time risk management.

Digitalisation is considered key to achieving this, with the main research areas being wireless communication systems; surveying, mapping and navigation; systems integration for smart mining and working towards creating an IoT platform for mining.

WMI director, Prof. Fred Cawood, in the DigiMine control centre.

WMI director, Prof. Fred Cawood, in the DigiMine control centre.

R3-million of the new investment will go towards student support and strategic projects identified by vice-chancellor Prof. Adam Habib for the benefit of Wits University. Another R3-million will go towards student support and strategic projects identified by the head of the School of Mining Engineering, Prof. Cuthbert Musingwini, for the benefit of mining engineering students. The remaining R9-million will go towards further development of the DigiMine. A chair in Digital Mining and Mine Automation will also be appointed, and there are plans to integrate the work of the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI).

Five digital mining projects prioritised for 2018 include work towards a deeper understanding of mining-induced seismicity; continuation of underground UAV research; continued work on wireless sensor network research; contributing to the Sibanye-Stillwater modernisation and innovation strategy and a collaborative 21stcentury skills roll-out scheme at artisan, technician and professional levels.

During its three-year pilot phase, the lab has already produced 15 research outputs, some of which were showcased during the two-day seminar preceding the launch, which included work done in partnership with Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST).

The seminar highlighted the multidisciplinary nature and application of the research, including a presentation by the GCRO’s Samkelisiwe Khanyile, who researched the potential of a spatial database for assessing historical geospatial data on mining and related activities. This, Khanyile explained, is important for understanding the magnitude and scope of mining operations over time.

NUST’s Prof. Sarfraz Ali developed a conceptual framework and idealised model for evaluating flooding-induced mining seismicity at city-level, while the University of Johannesburg’s Dr Hennie Grobler presented his work on underground positioning using sidewall survey networks.

Dr Hamid Ashraf, also from NUST, showed the mining cadastre system and mineral policy framework he helped develop for Pakistan, and how it can aid mineral development for national economic growth. Lastly, Ashraf’s colleague, Dr Tariq Feroze, simulated air quality and ventilation patterns for coal mines to create a simplified formula and estimation model for calculating airflow close to the mining face.

At the heart of the DigiMine is the control room, which comprises several work stations, a server room and a video wall of nine screens, which pull in data from various sensors, including remote seismicity sensors at the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind.

According to Sibanye Stillwater executive director and CEO, Neal Froneman, the lab will also help to reshape the image of mining as unsophisticated and requiring manual labour, and he hopes it will attract a new generation of miners.

The university has identified mining as one of its 2020 vision initiatives, with the WMI being one of six institutes established within the university to take on special projects. The DigiMine will also further Prof. Habib’s vision of turning Braamfontein into a technology hub, with other digital projects like the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct and companies such as IBM already established in the area.

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