HomeCoalXR technology masterclass: Mining and education combo

XR technology masterclass: Mining and education combo

Extended Reality (XR) technology is touted to be a game-changer for the mining industry. Now, in an effort to understand this technology better, Exxaro Resources has partnered with the University of Pretoria to create a research programme that will help drive sustainable and safer mining. GERARD PETER reports.

XR technology refers to all real and virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology, including augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR). It is believed that a combination of technologies, as opposed to relying on a single specific one, is more beneficial to mining operations.

According to Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman, head of the Mining Engineering Department at the University of Pretoria, XR technology will form a large part of a strategic intervention in dealing with mining-related challenges. “Not all companies have the know-how to implement technology successfully. The ubiquitous nature of XR technology and its applications are evident and its relevance for mining-related challenges needs to be explored further,” he adds.

It was with this in mind that the university approached Exxaro to create the Chair in XR technology. “The programme will offer a framework of this technology which can be used to address the respective challenges. Through work in the Chair, the identification of the best XR technology combinations for mining applications will be identified,” explains Webber-Youngman.

The programme will assist in selecting the most effective XR technologies for the specific applications, and then design interactions that can enable intuitive interaction with the virtual environment. It will also offer extensive user testing of proposed solutions to ensure that the solutions address and solve as many of the challenges as possible. Among the solutions that will be explored are using virtual VR to communicate, individual and shared VR applications and hand tracing versus full body tracking.

The university has also identified research topics that will help in the development of XR technology solutions. These are the current state of XR technology in South Africa’s mining industry, application areas for XR in this sector and the use of this technology on all levels of a mining operation.

Webber-Youngman explains that one of the outcomes envisaged is to develop proof of concepts to be deployed in Exxaro. “Exxaro will be used as a research platform to evaluate the effectiveness of the XR interventions and to establish the viability, within a mining industry context, of these interventions.”

Commenting on the partnership, Exxaro CEO Mxolisi Mgojo says, “We are proud to have such a strategic partnership with the University of Pretoria and to be amongst the mining companies to explore the potential benefits of XR Technology as a strategic intervention across its operations. We believe that XR technology has immense applications for dealing with mining-related challenges and that can optimise the resources of companies like Exxaro. The possibilities of what we could develop are really exciting.”

A new way of learning

The research will be conducted at the Virtual Reality and Interaction (VRI) lab, an initiative of the Departments of Information Science and Mining Engineering at the university. The VRI lab applies XR technologies to create interactive user experiences for various applications. It also aims to educate and train the next generation of developers and researchers with real world projects that are unique to XR technology. This is achieved through their participation in learner programmes, postgraduate research projects and industry projects.

Weber-Youngman explains that face-to-face education and training are not always possible and takes much longer especially with large groups. It is for this reason that education and training on XR technology at the university is built around interactive immersive technology (IIT), an innovation that is designed to engage trainees and give them a sense of being involved. By using VR and AR it gives learners access to study and training material. “IIT implementation changes the way we learn and apply and has already been proven to significantly improve knowledge retention.

“Also, different literacy levels on mines make visualisation of certain scenarios a very important aspect to further enhance the learning and knowledge application experience,” states Webber-Youngman.

The Exxaro Chair in XR technology is a major step towards understanding the benefits implementing a multi-faceted digital solution – one that improves safety and productivity and enhances sustainable mining. “I believe the successful implementation of XR technology as a strategic intervention across identified operations on mines will indeed be a game-changer,” concludes Webber-Youngman.

Gerard Peter
Gerard Peter is a content creator and media strategist with more than 23 years' experience in new and traditional media.