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This article originally appeared in the above issue of our print magazine. The digital version of the magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.
11 September 2017

Virtual technology training delivers best blasting practices

Accurate blasting practices in underground mining environments have been proven to deliver improvements in safety and productivity and should therefore be considered part of the core foundation upon which a mine is developed and operated. To reinforce the need for precise blasting techniques, Murray & Roberts Cementation Training Academy near Carletonville, west of Johannesburg, has enhanced its training service capabilities in this specific area with the installation and commissioning of Africa’s first virtual reality (VR) blast wall with rear-view projection, writes LAURA CORNISH.

Developed in conjunction with and powered by Simulated Training Solutions, a company that specialises in virtual reality learning solutions for clients in the mining industry, the VR blast well represents a significant digital technological leap forward in training for underground blasting.

Working in a practical environment, which is the Training Academy’s standard education approach, far exceeds teaching time and learning when compared to traditional classroom whiteboard methods. The latter, says Tony Pretorius, education, training and development (ETD) executive at Murray & Roberts Cementation, are limited to unrealistic representations which cannot be visualised and comprehended. As a result, learners do not fully grasp the concepts of what they are being taught – which in this case is the correct marking and timing of a blast round.

How it works

“The VR blast wall is designed to teach workers practically how to take line and grade, mark off a blast pattern/burden and time the round to ensure the correct firing sequence in pursuance of a safe quality blast – all within a simulated, real-life environment,” Pretorius explains.

To properly replicate the blasting environment, the simulator has been housed within two joined containers which matches the scale of a standard 3 m x 4 m development end. It fully replicates underground environmental conditions, from the look and feel of the area to actual temperatures, light and typical sounds.

“While exposed to ‘the elements’, learners must focus solely on marking the wall in preparation for blasting, after examining the area to identify geological triggers which could give rise to a fall of ground; for example, dykes, no hanging wall support or missing support. Importantly, these exercises also provide learners with the vital skill of how to read a survey note, which cannot be accomplished effectively with traditional methods.”

The VR blast wall allows learners to mark an actual wall by ‘painting’ their centre and grade lines using the click-and-drag functionality associated with computers. The ‘mouse’ is cleverly shaped like a spray can, again helping portray the real-life environment. The process further takes into account different detonator delays, which is equally important in understanding or learning how to ensure the correct blast sequence to deliver the best blast.

“Once fully prepared with grid lines drawn and detonators positioned to blast sequentially, learners are able to watch, in 3-D, how the blast sequence occurs and the overall appearance of the full blast.”

Thanks to the power of computers and an interactive screen, learners test their abilities in a safe and ‘erasable’ environment which can also record and store their performance (technique and timeframe) for assessment purposes. Observing mistakes is also considered one of the fastest ways to learn and improve.

“We are excited about the value that this facility will bring to our integrated learning programme,” Pretorius highlights. “A tool like this is long overdue in the underground mining space, as traditional teaching and training methods for underground blasting practices are not as immersive and hence are not as effective as we would have liked them to be. Importantly, such training mechanisms are geared to ensuring learners have fun, which has been proven to accelerate the learning path.”

Fulfilling all aspects of blasting training

Technology is increasingly important in the simulation of underground practical demonstrations, says Pretorius. The blast wall simulation will augment the Training Academy’s blended learning approach which combines the use of integrated e-learning programmes with the use of inert explosives in a mock-up environment to facilitate learner applied competence.

While the training on the drilling and physical charging stages of the blasting process takes place in another mock-up environment on campus, learners can then return to the VR blast wall to harness their skills in essential blasting practices. Additional training programmes geared around blasting include understanding how to interpret ground conditions and learning how detonators and blasting devices work.

“We have invested in this technology because it can improve the performance of the learners in our three key priority areas to achieve a daily, safe, quality blast,” Pretorius highlights. “There is no silver bullet in the learning process, but advances like these continually improve the combined impact of all our integrated educational initiatives.”

Positive feedback and the way forward

Interested parties from all over the country have already visited the academy to view the facility, says Pretorius, and they have expressed enthusiasm about the benefits it holds for the skills development of their staff.

He expects the VR blast wall to be used by all learner miners engaged in blasting related activities. These comprise about a quarter of the 200 mineworkers who pass through the academy each month; this means that as many as 600 workers could benefit each year.

“More than likely, we will be growing this type of technology in collaboration with Simulated Training Solutions for the business and we look forward to sharing this expertise in the service of safety and productivity in the industry.”

Looking to the future, Pretorius is examining how best to evaluate the effects of the training once learners move into/ return to the mines. “We need to ensure that workers appreciate the consequences of their actions when their mistakes cannot simply be erased. Repetition and refresher courses are critical components of the entire process,” Pretorius concludes.

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