How Virtual Reality Can Help Keep African Miners Safe

Written by Tom Jackson


A South African tech company is putting virtual reality technology to good use by making the mining industry safer.

Mining is getting more dangerous, if official statistics are to be believed, with South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources telling parliament earlier this year that, though the number of injuries have been falling, fatalities increased between 2017 and 2018.

Fatalities on mining operations increased from 51 to 58 over the year, with the figures infuriating the mining unions, which have criticized companies for failing to keep workers safe.

One of the answers, however, may be staring everyone in the face. South Africa – and Africa in general – is undergoing a tech revolution, with innovative solutions being developed in sectors as diverse as financial services, agriculture and health. Few companies are focusing on the mining sector.

South African tech company Simulated Training Solutions (STS3D) is taking virtual reality (VR), a form of technology usually associated with entertainment, and applying it to mining. The company installed the world’s first VR blast wall at Glencore’s Mopani Copper Mines in Zambia in 2016, and has since built two more in South Africa.

“We use VR for orientation, training, and safety awareness. There are various different forms of VR – you don’t necessarily need to wear a headset to partake in VR,” said Johan Bouwer, head of VR and new technology at STS3D.

At the lowest end of the spectrum, it provides basic simulations that trainee miners interact with on a standard PC screen, such as pre-use vehicle safety inspection programs. It also offers training via head mount displays, which allow for fully immersive experiences.

Virtual reality
Miners in South Africa can use virtual reality tech to make their work safer. Image – AP Photo – Themba Hadebe

“This by nature is much more engaging, and gives a much richer learning experience. Here we train people on performing mechanical tasks such as fault-finding and machine-maintenance, or mine or plant layout-orientation and familiarization,” Bouwer said.

“One of our programs is the virtual entry examination procedure where the user has to enter the mine section, and perform certain tasks in order to declare the underground workplace safe, before allowing the shift crew to enter the area. They have to measure for dangerous gasses, confirm proper ventilation present, and search for dangerous geological features that pose a risk.”

Virtual reality safety training

Where it gets really interesting is with the VR cubes and VR blast walls developed by STS3D. These are immersive systems that do not require a head mount display. In the cube – a room where three walls and the ceiling are all screens – people are trained on high-voltage operations. The blast walls train and assess users on the correct marking off and timing of a life-size face wall.

“The users build up muscle memory by actually ‘performing’ the tasks, and by using short cycle feedback loops they know if their attempts were accurate enough or not,” Bouwer said.

This has a real impact on safety. VR allows the training to become a participating experience, as opposed to a mere observation, as with traditional board and chalk, Powerpoint or video presentation.

“There are no outside distractions, so users can’t daydream or check their phones. The experience is full and complete, and have their 100 percent undivided attention,” said Bouwer.

“The ‘real’ environment with all it’s hazards is simulated but with none of the risk. As example, people can be trained on fire-fighting with no risk of smoke inhalation, or risking burn injuries. A person can be taught and assessed on working safely at heights – and they really do believe that they are 30 metres up – with no chance of accidental slip and fall to the ground should they make a ‘mistake’. By gamifying the training programme people also come back for more at their own free will – even after hours.”

Miners that train using the cubes and blast walls have greatly improved levels of understanding and retention, and fully understand the operation and mechanics of the task, machine or procedure.

“This means that once they get to the real world, they are already aware of all the risks, and can avoid injury,” said Bouwer.

One of the reasons companies are put off from installing this kind of tech is the high setup costs, but Bouwer said it is worth it over time.

“The repetition, rapid scene reset ability in mere seconds, and simulation of any imaginable scenario saves big in the long run. We even use VR to simulate some of our new designs and installations before going to production. Picking up a design flaw in the virtual world is a lot cheaper than realising the problem after production and on site,” he said.

“The pro-active preventative training that VR brings to the party also help prevent costly lost-time injuries, or section 54s which can close down operations for weeks or months.”

In general, however, VR and other forms of technology are becoming more common in the mining industry.

“As with most new technologies, everyone is wary to invest too much too soon – just think back to the corporate adoption rate to computers in the 1970s and 1980s. Early adopters reap the rewards sooner, while the mainstream follows suit once it sees that it’s not a mere gimmick,” said Bouwer.

“More and more of our clients are past experiencing VR demonstrations, they’re buying in. The world over mining companies are investing in VR simulations, and we have learnt that the uniqueness and quality of our ideas and solutions run parallel with the first world countries.”

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.