Lessons from a digital mine

April 16th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

The Wits Mining Institute’s (WMI) annual DigiMine Seminar this year shared with delegates from the mining industry digital mining developments and lessons the institute has learnt from its own digital mining laboratory.

The WMI is one of Wits University’s six interdisciplinary 21st Century Research Institutes tasked with developing professionals for careers in the fourth industrial revolution. The WMI comprises the Sibanye-Stillwater Digital Mining Laboratory (DigiMine); The Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI); and The Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems (CMMS).

Alex Fenn

Alex Fenn

The DigiMine works with 19 industry partners in hardware, software and systems development to experiment and enable digital mining. It is focused specifically on underground mining, where conditions are notoriously difficult, and where it aims to address knowledge gaps. To do this, the DigiMine focuses on four main research areas: wireless communication systems; surveying, mapping and navigation; health, safety and security; and system integration for smart mining.

Alex Fenn from Sibanya Stillwater, the anchor sponsor of the DigiMine, opened the seminar by explaining that advances in digital mining can be attributed to advances in big data. An important advantage of digital technologies is the ability to learn and use technologies from other industries, he said. Another advantage is that it not only allows new business practices, but the opportunity to improve existing processes. However, with the scope of digital mining being so broad, companies often find it difficult to articulate the value of data and focus investment and R&D.

Information models

Presentations on the day by DigiMine students focused on information models for mining, both geographic information models (GIS) and building information models (BIM). Master student Calvin Opiti’s research looked at spatio-temporal modelling in GIS, while his fellow student Faiq Javaid conceptualised a mining information model (MIM) based on BIM.

Calvin Opiti

Calvin Opiti

Opiti has worked on an integrated GIS and digital sensor systems for a real-time health and safety monitoring in underground mines, including risks such as mine flooding, fires, toxic gasses and rock movements. For his research he used the web streaming feature of sensors to integrate them into Esri’s ArcGIS software and display the info in an online dashboard. A GIS is a good solution as the exact nature of these incidents is important. It also allows for location-based analyses and machine learning.

The director of the WMI, Prof Fred Cawood explained that the institute is still quite new to machine learning, but is making good progress in this field with the help of other disciplines. Advances in this will also hold benefit to projects such as Javaid’s MIM model. Javaid wants to apply BIM principles to create MIM systems, which he said has the benefit of merging operational and business/economic decisions on one platform. Data from MIMs could also benefit robotics in mining.

Prof. Fred Cawood

Prof. Fred Cawood

However, challenges ranging from current IoT infrastructure to network issues occur, much like in commercial mines where entire systems cannot be completely overhauled.

Hybrid and legacy networks

Both information models are constrained by the university’s existing network, as Femi Kolade explained. The combination of old and new networks, in the DigiMine case Avaya and Cisco networks, along with firewalls posed capacity and configuration problems with the number of data nodes and functions on the same network.

Faiq Javaid

Faiq Javaid

Another hard lesson was in creating redundant networks, as the WMI found out when one of its sensors was unable to stream data from an earthquake event in Botswana, which hampered its experiment to calculate movement between two different vertical points.

Devices and the role of ICT

The sensors themselves can complicate efforts considering the difficulty that some user interfaces create in configuring sensors, or their inability to be configured remotely. This, Prof Cawood believes, is something OEMs will benefit from by improving their products.

Researchers in the DigiMine also learnt that ICT remains key in the process, from complying to organisations’ security policies to working with ICT staff in enabling the infrastructure on which systems run. One way to improve communication between disciplines such as engineers and ICT is through system documentation, which is even more important for other reasons.

Need for comprehensive documentation

A lesson common to all the DigiMine projects is the importance of and need for complete and comprehensive documentation of each system. Besides creating a blueprint for the digital mine, it can help speed up the process and knowledge transfer when staff members leave, and helps multiple disciplines collaborate. Prof Cawood said a typical system document should include the champion of the system along with company and contact details. It should also include the name and outline of the system’s functionality, along with information about its integration with other systems, and typical and known problems with their solutions. A to-do list of outstanding work on the systems and further improvements need can also help steer the system development, while an exit strategy is equally important.

A digital mine brings visibility and insights which can help create distance between workers and risk, Prof Cawood said. He argues that humans will remain part of the mining operation in the South African context, and that it is not retrenchment that needs addressing as much as 21st century skill sets.

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