First In Africa: SA’s Virtual Reality Center For Mining Safety

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Written by Dana Sanchez

South Africa had seen a radical improvement in mining deaths in the last few years, with 93 deaths in 2013 and 84 in 2014 — the lowest number of fatalities in the country since records began, EngineerLive reports.

More than 54,000 mine workers have died in South African mining accidents since 1904, EngineerLive reports. While you get you head around that, consider this. The country has the world’s largest reserves of platinum and manganese group metals and among the largest of diamonds, gold, vanadium and chromite ore.

South Africa is also a leader in new technology that includes converting low-grade superfine iron ore into high-quality iron units. Mining creates 1 million-plus jobs for South Africans and accounts for about 18 percent of gross domestic product, according to EngineerLive.

Despite success at diversifying the economy, the South African economy is over-reliant on mining. Recent drops in commodity prices and economic shifts in China have resulted in reduced output and thousands of mining job losses this year.

In this environment, South African researchers are making headway in mine safety with the help of innovative technology including simulation and training, EngineerLive reports.

Scientists at the University of Pretoria have produced a virtual reality center to study real-life mining accidents and prevent future accidents.

The center is a first in Africa, and includes a mine design center, a 3D stereoscopic theater and a 3D, 360-degree, 10-meter-diameter cylinder. It lets researchers reconstruct any mine incident and view it in the 3D stereoscopic theater as well as the immersive cylinder — both with the use of 3D glasses. Inside, the viewer can be fully immersed in the experience. Multiple senses are drawn into the experience of the incident to enhance learning.

“The age of immersion has just started, with great potential to enhance learning,” said Ronny Webber-Youngman, head of mining engineering at the university.

He cited an experiment in the U.S. that compared immersive virtual reality learning and normal 2D learning.  After six weeks the group that experienced only the 2D environment remembered 30 percent of what they learned whereas the virtual reality immersed group remembered everything. “This is a remarkable testimony of the potential impact of virtual reality,” Webber-Youngman said.

Mine safety is part of the education at the university, EngineerLive reports. Mining company Anglo American has an operational risk management program for all of its senior managers and supervisors. The university uses this material for other students.

“I have included it as final year module for our students with great success,” Webber-Youngman said.  “Safety, health and other risks associated with mines – including finances – are being tackled with our students.”