The dangers of mining operations are well-known, with training playing a key role in ensuring staff can respond quickly and appropriately.
But developing realistic training systems with real-world scenarios has not always been possible. This is where companies like GHD are stepping in to fill the gap with virtual reality.
GHD has used building information modelling for a number of years, but is now using virtual reality applications, through its recently launched business arm GHD Advisory, to boost the application of BIM beyond design and construction.
“Even in the BIM space, there’s a big move to embedding it into live projects,” said Kingsley Smith, virtual reality business development manager at GHD Advisory, who has worked with virtual reality for the past 17 years.
The virtual reality experience can be run off a laptop, with applications including training, emergency response, maintenance, bringing data into the field and counter-terrorism.
In the digital engineering space, one of the main advantages of virtual technology is improving the design-review decision time. Smith said one of the biggest problems in stakeholder communications are that beyond the engineer, people do not always understand a project.
“If we can get people all on the same page and everybody understanding a project, we might be able to reduce delay times, shorten decision making and design review processes and get infrastructure projects delivered faster and on budget,” Smith said.
“Really the question for us is how we can utilise the huge amount of three dimensional geo-spatially referenced data that our customers have and that they struggle to understand.”
In the mining sector, virtual reality can be especially valuable on remote or complex sites. Applications can include work around safe productivity by focusing on training, but also looking at how to improve productivity at the same time.
“That means not just running generic training, but developing site-specific training for customers and also being able to use it as a data layering environment where we’re talking about central visual databases that can be accessed and distributed across the internet,” Smith said.
“It’s about how well we share our data, and that’s what I think virtual and augmented reality really enables us to do.”
GHD Advisory’s virtual reality team focuses on using a company’s data. One of the first steps in the process is carrying out an audit to see what data is available, and then working out the gaps that need to be filled.
Mining projects involve a range of data – geological, mine plan, gas management and how equipment performs. All of this information can be overlaid in one visual environment, which allows the data to be interpreted and analysed in a way that companies typically haven’t done before.
“Generally the data is looked at in isolation. Also, using it not just for the optimisation of operations, but being able to focus on and draw on some of the history of simulation that’s come out of the military space,” Smith said.
Once a user is in the virtual environment, a range of scenarios can be set up. For example, gas levels can be increased or something can be set on fire. If a user doesn’t respond appropriately, problems can be escalated to trigger a response.
However, the limitations of virtual reality are now well-known, and in the business space, a lack of data can impact on the virtual experience.
Smith cited an example where GHD Advisory received a mine plan from an underground coal mine organisation. In the plan view, it was perfectly surveyed, but when it came to looking at the depth data, the team discovered it wasn’t surveyed well because the mining organisation wasn’t used to looking at its data in 3D.
To help get better data to work with, Smith said GHD Advisory works with its customers to improve how they capture data.
“We’ve got new technologies like drones and laser scanners and a whole range of new tech and tracking technology that’s enabling us to improve the data we need and streamline importing it into virtual worlds,” he said.
Mark Read, group executive manager at GHD Advisory, said developing the technology hasn’t been difficult. But it has been a challenge getting customers to understand that the investment in the technology isn’t just a one-off, but something that can generate value across the lifecycle of an operation.
“I think VR Space, the company recently purchased by GHD, would have struggled to break through to some of the bigger customers because it didn’t understand the asset and how it operates,” he said.
Growing public use of augmented reality, such as through games like Pokemon Go, is helping – GHD Advisory delivered one project for a customer in New Zealand where the community could walk out, capture Q code on their smartphone and see a whole road transport infrastructure project in augmented reality.
“That came from somebody watching their kid play Pokemon Go,” Read said. “The advent of social media and gaming applications is all very positive reinforcement for us in making this a more normal technology.”
Over the next 12 months, GHD Advisory plans to develop connectors for a range of software and develop workflows that allows the virtual reality software to be delivered smoothly and seamlessly.
Smith said the team is also constantly looking at the latest graphic card technology, computing technology and chip technology.
But the real focus will be on customers and how to provide long term value using virtual reality.
“People that use their data effectively will be the leaders in the market going forward. Our philosophy is to assist our clients turn the amount of data they’ve got into meaningful decisions that add value to their business,” Read said.
“VR and augmented reality are very important part of that.”