Virtual reality: The new mine safety training tool

Not so long ago, virtual reality was the stuff of dreams, thought of as a “one day” concept. However for Coal Services that day is now here, with the company using the technology for mine safety and training.

Visiting the Mines Rescue station in Wollongong, Australian Mining investigated how the company is changing training in mining.

Mines Rescue, a business unit of Coal Services, is a registered training organisation (RTO) providing training across a number of courses that are recognised throughout Australia including training at heights, and manual handling through to confined spaces, both for the mining industry and outside of it.

Coal Services exists to provide health, training, safety and environmental monitoring services to coal mines across NSW. Along with the office in Wollongong, Coal Services is also located in other key coal mining regions across the state, with offices in Singleton, Newcastle, Mudgee, and Lithgow.

But it’s the virtual reality training on offer at Mines Rescue that is revolutionising the way miners are taught about safety.

Mines Rescue virtual reality Technical Manager, Matthew Farrelly, said the company has four virtual training platforms which work together to give a training experience that is immersive, flexible, versatile, and which can be customised to certain mine sites and specific safety issues.

Virtual reality 360 degree theatre

Walking into this training space is like walking into a massive cinema, with screens all around you providing a 360 degree view of what is displayed.

The 360 degree theatre was originally built in 2008, but has since undergone some amazing technological advances to make the experience more realistic for users.

This space is used to immerse training participants in situations which are too dangerous to recreate in real life such as underground fires and gas explosions, and to then train them on what to do if they are ever confronted with these dangerous situations.

“It puts them in situations that can’t be replicated in the real world,” State Operations Manager of Mines Rescue, Steve Tonegato, said.

“You can’t light fires underground, you can’t have smoke coming at you, and you can’t put people in high pressure situations in real mines where they have to make decisions, but you can do that here.

“Mixed reality is something that is very unique. People see a lot of virtual reality, especially in gaming which has sensational graphics, but this is a place where not only does everything look real but you can also interact."

What the team at Mines Rescue have built is not just a simulation, but a fully operating mine, down to the 50km worth of virtual roadway users are able to walk through.

“Everything you see in an underground mine, from dolly cars to conveyors to longwalls is replicated here,” Tonegato explains.

To give us an idea of what the technology was capable of, Farrelly imported an open-cut haul truck and a shovel rope into the underground virtual environment.

This highlighted that the underground mine we were seeing on the screen was to scale as the haul truck was too big to fit into the underground roadway, so all that was visible were its wheels.

It also showed how the program can be customised to incorporate a wide range of mining assets and equipment.

“What this allows us to do is move these assets to wherever we want within the virtual reality world and set them on fire, create accidents, create smoke, to give training participants a full emergency experience,” Tonegato said.

Further adding to the experience are the point of views available. Users are able to view the mine from differing angles including from the roof, inside the walls, and even behind the longwall and into danger or accident zones you normally would not have access to. This makes for a more holistic training experience that allows training participants to better understand their working environment.

It also allows for the elements of a mine to be explained so people are more familiarised with what they will be working with.

“We can go through and show people how it all works. How the bolts are put in and the order they’re put in and why they’re put in. We can talk about elements of strata management, we can talk about vent tubes and ventilation, all that sort of stuff,” Farrelly said.

iPod touches have also been converted into gas detectors that look exactly like the ones used underground.

Farrelly explained that in certain training scenarios these gas detectors go off, sending out alerts about the amount of gas in the mine and the danger levels. This is played out on the screen before users’ eyes, with smoke starting to fill the virtual mine shaft.  The system is so sophisticated that depending on where you go in the mine and what ventilation it has, the gas level on the iPod touch varies.

Farrelly then played out a scenario where a remote miner ruptures a methane pocket, sending smoke into the air, and the gas detector started buzzing, showing 2.4 per cent methane in the air.

3D glasses make the experience even more real and confronting. When Farrelly demonstrated the methane explosion, we were almost tempted to fan the smoke away, highlighting the amazing graphics.

The program then allowed us to see the damaged area where the roof had collapsed after the outburst, something impossible to do in the real world.

Farrelly explained that this allows trainers to talk about what happened and what went wrong, as well as teach training participants what to do in similar emergency situations.

These sort of scenarios are used for refresher training and also for new inductees to show the scale of some of the machines they will operate.

“Workers are on these massive machines, generally destroying everything that is in front of them and feeling pretty invincible,” Farrelly said.

“This virtual reality scenario explains and shows the size of nature."

 Approximately 485 Mines Rescue on-site emergency response brigadesmen in the state of NSW also use the theatre for training each year.

Local companies are loving the technology because it can be fully customised to replicate their mine sites down to the way the haul roads are laid out, to the method of mining used.

Furthermore, the Trigger Action Response Plans (TARP) of any site can be displayed during training so workers know the cues and responses for the differing situations. The Mines Rescue team can even interlay this with pictures from specific mine sites as visual examples of what to look out for.

This means rather than sit in a classroom to go through the differing situations and responses, trainers can go through the same TARP in the theatre, giving the TARP real meaning because of what is being displayed on screen.

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“In the last nine months we have created specific scenarios that are customised due to demand from customers because of issues they were having on site. This VR really lends itself to that,” Tonegato said.

“The exciting thing has been to fully appreciate what we can do with it,” he added.

“The scope of what we can do has grown tremendously and now includes mine specific scenarios from ignitions, to issues with ribs, to gas detection.

“We are getting increased usage year-on-year in terms of what we can do with the technology.

"I anticipate the use of virtual reality will continue to grow as people become aware of its potential.”

Farrelly said that adding this sort of virtual reality as a part of blended training leads to better learning outcomes.

The Domes

The domes give users an individual, controlled experience. Training participants walk into a dark room with a huge screen that in this instance was showing a mine wall. In the middle of the room is a joystick that the user controls in order to move around the mine on display.

What is shown on the screen in this instance is the mine before an outburst occurred, the very outburst we had just experienced in the 360 degree theatre.

The aim of this session is for the training participant to assess the area and note the hazards which indicate why remote mining should not occur in this location.

Farrelly explained there are a number of risks which the training participant must identify.

“The aim is to send people back in time and say: If you had seen this, would you have recognised the risks?” Farrelly said.

The training participants are then tasked with assessing the site and writing down the danger indicators.

Farrelly explained there were a number of indicators shown on the screen in the dome which are hazardous.

This included a rock on the ground before the wall, demonstrating a lack of consistency/stability.

There was also a visible fault line which signifies a large amount of pressure, and a brown stain on the rock representing melinite – denoting a shift in the coal.

A small outburst was also apparent on the left hand side of the face while the roof sagged, an indication of instability.

“Exposing them to these indicators here means if they come across any of them they can say: Hey this looks like a dangerous area, I’m going to stop mining here and report it,” Farrelly said.

Immersive training on desktop

This is like playing a computer game with your very own avatar, but the aim is to train.

It allows for the same visuals as in the 360 degree theatre, but users are in absolute control; there is even a special button which allows training participants to move their headlamps in order to carry out the normal underground signalling.

As we walked around the underground tunnels during the demonstration, we ran into the same outburst incident that occurred in the 360 degree theatre, meaning the program is totally interchangeable –anything you can do in the theatre and domes can be experienced on the laptops.

Even more impressive is that the training miners undertake on the computers can be recorded so they are able to see what they completed correctly, or got wrong, when they get back to the classroom environment. The system is so advanced it can even recognise and pinpoint every time a user’s avatar leaves the line of sight of a fellow avatar.

The laptops are also customisable, meaning the software can be tailored around any company’s underground operation or pit. This means customers can conduct training specific to the working environment of their sites and address any specific issues.

“Recently we had a pit where they had frictional ignition, and they needed to do some training on how to prevent that,” Farrelly explained.

“We mapped out what the area looked like, and built it in front of them, placing the miner where it would have been in the real mine, hitting and creating a spark, and building a training module around this scenario in minutes.”

The best part about this platform is that it is portable, meaning laptops can be taken onsite, a real value for customers.

“The customers are loving this technology, in fact some are saying it is better than the 360,” Farrelly said.

The desktop experience is immersive and allows Mines Rescue to conduct a hybrid course with a seamless transfer which incorporates teaching from PowerPoint, to talking about knowledge transfer and then allowing training participants see what the visual aspect of this looks like and snap back out to continue knowledge transfer.

“The important part for us is that we have a wide range of tools that we can use for each situation. This desktop capability is really good for everyone to have their own individual experience,” Farrelly said.

“This allows for 12 people to run around together and perform a whole bunch of operations.”

Curve Screen

This is similar to a lecture theatre in a university and it shows the mine plan from the top and even displays the avatars, and the outburst that was programmed in the other platforms.

It allows for users to playback their training scenarios, and for assessors to watch the training scenarios in live time.

“The curve screen is a live version of everything that is happening in 360 and on the laptops,” Farrelly explained.

Other facilities

The centre also boasts six classrooms, and a small underground mine which Mines Rescue uses for training.

The mine has a set of tunnels, and is fitted with rescuers, a small longwall, and a conveyor.

In an emergency response training scenario, Mines Rescue has the ability to fill the mine with smoke, or to light fires and assess how training participants are able to don their protective gear, refill at the rescuer stations and get out of the mine.

“Our facilities at Mines Rescue throughout the state are absolutely world-class,” Tonegato said.

“Not only do we have a range of terrific practical areas for a range of training, from working at heights to manual handling to confined spaces – we are also able to utilise virtual reality in many and varied platforms.”

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