Forget FIFO: Mining from home the future for resources workers

Fully autonomous mines, virtual reality training programs and mining from home may one day be the reality for resources sector workers, say South Australian researchers.

May 30, 2024, updated May 30, 2024
Autonomous drones and machines operated by workers in virtual reality could be the future of Australian mining. Main photo: Melanie Burton/Reuters. VR photo: Freepik. Graphic design: James Taylor/InDaily.

Autonomous drones and machines operated by workers in virtual reality could be the future of Australian mining. Main photo: Melanie Burton/Reuters. VR photo: Freepik. Graphic design: James Taylor/InDaily.

University of South Australia research is looking at making fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) shifts and workplace injuries at mines a thing of the past.

By taking advantage of ever-improving virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, as well as machine learning innovations, researchers see a future for the mining sector that’s more or less hands-off for humans.

One of Australia’s leading geologists and immersive technology experts, Professor Tom Raimondo, is leading the charge to develop VR and AR platforms to enhance often tedious and dangerous mining exploration tasks.

Professor Tom Raimondo. Photo: University of South Australia.

Professor Raimondo, the Dean of Programs for Information Technology and Mathematics at the University of South Australia, is facilitating his work through one of the world’s leading mineral exploration collaboration programs – MinEx CRC.

The cooperative research centre is the largest of its kind in the world and is partnering with Uni SA on projects such as the RoXplorer digital twin – an ultra-realistic simulation of a drill site that can be experienced in a virtual space.

Another collaboration is the Exploration Metaverse – a collection of three projects that use new technologies to comprehend huge amounts of complex data. This includes LogAR – an augmented reality application that lets users visualise mineral data over drill cores, which Raimondo sees as a vast improvement over traditional pen and paper logs and cumbersome spreadsheets.

Raimondo told InDaily that innovations being worked on at Uni SA would enable more accessible training for a growing workforce. In the case of the RoXplorer digital twin, the simulation is emulating new drilling technology that will soon be on the market and therefore is relatively inaccessible for training purposes otherwise.

“Very soon, companies are going to want to deploy [the new drilling technology] in the field, and the drillers that are required to operate that machinery need a whole different set of competencies than what they currently have based on conventional drilling platforms,” he said.

“They need to do a whole lot of training – and they can’t do the training if there’s no physical rigs for them to train on.

“So by making a fully digital twin and placing it in a virtual environment, we can build up a whole bunch of familiarisation exercises and basic competencies so that when the commercialised rigs become available all of the drillers have a running start.”

LogAR can also enhance training for new geologists, Raimondo said.

“One of the basic jobs that a graduate geologist does is walk up and down these trays of drill cores and tries to interpret what the rock types are,” he said.

“Traditionally, this is done almost entirely by observation – it’s driven by knowledge as opposed to data and the number of rocks you’ve seen and how expert you are dictates how good you are at that process.

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“That’s a challenge because when you’re a graduate, you’ve got no experience. You’re fresh out of uni – you haven’t seen many rocks and you don’t know where to go.”

With data superimposed over the drill cores via an augmented reality headset or simply through the camera lens of a smart phone new geologists can quickly learn how to assess drill cores.

“Instead of using observation to guess what sort of minerals make up the core, you’re now having that data fed to you. That process is now objective, rather than based on subjective experience,” Raimondo said.

“On top of that, your decisions are much more rapid.”

These new applications are forming part of a new way of mining that will soon change how companies discover metals and minerals and dig them up out of the ground.

Though “decades” away, Raimondo said the mine of the future is one with a ‘Zero Entry’ policy: no feet on the ground and operated entirely by robots which run either autonomously or by remote operators who could be driving them from the comfort of their own home.

“We already have an example of that at what was the OZ Minerals headquarters at Adelaide Airport and is now BHP: there’s a remote drilling operation that you drive from that office, so it already exists,” he said.

“There are remote trains of course that ship excavated ore from one site to another and there are drones that we send down shafts to map and do all sorts of interpretation of structures and rock types without having to send a human down there.

“What we’re moving towards is a fully digital mine where pretty much everything we need to make decisions to run operations is done in the digital environment. With robotics, we can use that to interact with the physical environment.”

The transition would be made “out of necessity”, as fewer humans on-site means safer mines for operators: “Mining is inherently dangerous; this is one of the simplest ways to reduce those hazards, by not sending any humans in and having that Zero Entry policy,” Raimondo said.

“It also has other improvements in terms of efficiency and environmental impacts.

“Instead of being constrained to a small desktop display, keyboard and mouse, we now have the full 360 degrees of our surrounding environment to interpret things more accurately and intuitively, freeing up our hands, giving us space to think, and engaging our brain in a different way. It’s a very exciting future.”

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