The aim of the new unit will be to prepare mining for the 21st century.
Moreover, former School of Mining Engineering head Professor Fred Cawood, intends to bring various disciplines in the new unit at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
The new unit, dubbed the Wits Mining Institution (WMI), has declared to make mining safer and more sustainable by harnessing fast-developing technologies and practices from different sectors.
“Sadly, these are not always incorporated into mining applications quickly enough to address the industry’s many challenges,” says Professor Cawood.
He adds that the institute’s breakthrough is the forging of working links across the university’s schools and research units.
The WMI aims to draw on a formidable battery of expertise and insights, ranging from architecture, public health, law, global change, population migration, urban development, electronics and computer science.
Furthermore, these disciplines will help to augment the already substantial work being done within the School of Mining Engineering through its Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems and the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry.
Professor Cawood says that South Africa’s deep-level ore bodies pose particularly difficult challenges to mining operations, but argues that the encouraging progress is already implemented to show the path forward for both established and new operations.
Underground applications to work on converting indoor positioning systems are already in progress, for instance, paving the way to developing an automated tunnel for mining at depths no longer viable or safe for humans to operate.
Pioneered software, sensors and related high-tech infrastructure are allowing developments like real time underground airflow modelling and access systems that could automatically exclude personnel restricted by health issues or legal compliance requirements.
Professor Cawood explains that these interventions bring South Africa closer to the concept of the intelligent mine, where the data required for good decisions would be made available in real time to inform automated responses that remove the risk of human error.
“The vision of safe and more efficient operations is reachable, if we can adapt and apply the remarkable technologies available to us,” he says.
Currently the mock mine at Wits University includes a 67 m life-size mine tunnel called “Nick’s Tunnel”, a stairwell equipped as a mock vertical shaft, a stope sponsored by New Concept Mining, lamp room and control room – which are used for both teaching and research into aspects such as security, systems integration and video analytics.
Skills development by the WMI aims to focus on modern skills that are required to install and maintain the various new technologies being implemented or considered by mechanised and digital mines.
“Mines that are already mechanised find themselves in a difficult position, as last century’s skills are unable to properly manage and advance the modern technologies that they have installed in their operations,” says Professor Cawood.
Some of the major funders of the digital mining infrastructure to date include Gold Fields, Aveng Mining, the Minerals and Education Trust Fund, Wits University, New Concept Mining and Sibanye Gold, who is currently the largest sponsor.
The research agenda is significant, with a total of 16 postgraduates who use/used the facility for their research and 10 undergraduate students who will graduate at the end of 2016 with a digital mining competence.