By Karen Sanders, Commercial Director at Real Serious Games

Various Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies have the potential to significantly enhance worker training, safety, and operational efficiency in the mining industry.

The adoption of VR technology in the resources industry offers many benefits including improved safety training, reduced risks to trainees, more efficient skill development, and cost savings by reducing the need for physical equipment or offering remote training.

The mining industry is leveraging immersive VR experiences to revolutionise training and the upskilling of its workforce. These VR experiences are often created using a virtual world that meticulously replicates various aspects of mining operations.

There are specific benefits VR brings to training and upskilling, in particular:

  • Virtual environments are safe environments – reduces the risk of training in high-risk tasks, machinery, or operations
  • Virtual training is mobile and repeatable – reduces the cost, while maintaining consistency, with high-quality training
  • Virtual activities can be simulated – training for specific fringe case scenarios/events

Using state-of-the-art technology, trainees are immersed in lifelike scenarios and provided hands-on experience without any real-world risk. Training simulations in VR offer a safe and controlled environment where trainees learn to recognise, respond to, and mitigate various hazards and challenges found in real mining environments. This approach involves creating 3D virtual environments that precisely model terrain, equipment, structures, and geological formations.

Trainees wear VR headsets – also called head mounted displays or HMDs – providing them with a 3D visual display and spatial audio, enhancing the sense of immersion.

To further engage trainees, VR systems use spatial tracking, allowing sensors and cameras to track head and hand movements in real-time, therefore enabling accurate human interaction within the virtual environment. Interactions can be monitored and used in reporting for formative or summative assessments to meet competencies and skills outcomes.

VR training is far superior to conventional classroom teaching due to the immersive nature of VR, which ensures that a trainee is fully engaged in the simulated situation. Whether it’s for equipment operation or emergency response training, VR experiences and simulations ensure individuals gain valuable skills while guaranteeing safety.

Applications of VR in the mining industry

The mining industry has various applications for VR technology in the areas of training simulations, safety training, and high-risk task planning. Immersive training simulators for mobile plant and equipment operators create a safe and realistic environment for training without requiring actual equipment.

Safety training scenarios simulate hazardous situations and emergency responses, ultimately enhancing preparedness and reducing the potential for errors and confusion in the event of real-world incidents. Drill and blast planning simulations enable precise planning and execution, leading to cost savings and improved safety.

Safety checks and inspections using VR and AR technologies can assist in remote inspection and maintenance. This allows experts to guide onsite personnel through complex machinery maintenance and inspection tasks.

Defects can be identified, images can be taken and uploaded to in-house asset management systems for immediate tracking and action. Operator assistance is provided through wearable AR devices, such as smart glasses, offering real-time data and enhancing decision-making.

VR technology is particularly effective for process-driven tasks and high-consequence activities, with data driven improvement possibilities and multilingual options.

Challenges preventing VR uptake in mining

While VR technology offers numerous benefits, the mining industry faces various challenges and barriers to its widespread adoption.

These include high initial costs associated with implementing VR solutions, such as the cost of hardware, software, and facilitator training. This may deter smaller mining companies and businesses operating in the mining and resources industries. The technical complexity of setting up and maintaining VR and AR systems can pose challenges, as mining companies may initially lack in-house expertise.

Integrating VR and AR with existing mining systems and processes can be intricate, necessitating investments in software and IT infrastructure for compatibility and data exchange. The sensitive data involved in mining operations requires robust data security and privacy measures to protect information held in VR and AR systems.

In addition, limited internet connectivity in remote mining sites can hinder the implementation of VR technology, necessitating investments in alternative connectivity solutions.

Content creation for VR and AR that accurately simulates mining environments and hazards can be time-consuming and costly, prompting some companies to consider outsourcing. It takes considerable time and company investment to ensure that subject matter experts are engaged to assist in the development of high quality and accurate training simulations.

Mining is a heavily regulated industry, requiring technology to comply with safety and environmental regulations. Hardware and software updates are essential, as VR and AR technologies evolve rapidly. Environmental impact considerations, such as the disposal of hardware, require sustainable practices and recycling efforts.

Resistance to technological change is common across industries, necessitating management efforts, training, and education to address this issue. Cultural acceptance of VR and AR may require time and effort, with pilot projects and employee involvement facilitating acceptance.

Implementing VR and AR on a larger scale can be challenging, making gradual scaling through pilot projects a viable strategy. Monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of VR and AR applications is crucial, involving regular assessments and user feedback for refinement.

Addressing the efficacy of VR

The statistics from PWC’s study(1) on the effectiveness of VR in training highlight the remarkable impact VR technology can have on learning outcomes.

Participants who underwent VR training were reported to be 275 per cent more confident in applying what they learned, indicating a significant boost in their practical skills. The study also revealed that VR training is, on average, four-times faster than traditional classroom and theoretical training, making it an efficient and time-saving approach.

Furthermore, VR learners were found to be four-times more focused than those using standard e-learning platforms, emphasising the engagement and immersion that VR training can offer.

In practical experience, the effectiveness of VR training becomes even more evident. VR can significantly lower the infrastructure and resource costs and requirements for training programs.

VR vs real-life training

Traditional training often requires dedicated physical spaces, such as classrooms or training centres, which can be expensive to lease, maintain, and equip. Training in VR eliminates the need for physical training spaces.

Participants can engage in VR training from anywhere, reducing travel expenses, including transportation, accommodation, and per diem costs. Training simulations can be reused indefinitely, allowing multiple trainees to go through the same scenarios. This is more cost-effective than creating new physical training materials each time a new batch of trainees needs instruction.

VR also offers scalability for training modules, making it particularly beneficial for industries with high turnover rates or those that require rapid onboarding. The high level of realism in VR training scenarios allows trainees to practice skills and encounter challenges closely resembling real-life mining conditions, enhancing training effectiveness, and bringing workers to site faster and better-equipped to deal with situations onsite.

VR training ensures that every trainee experiences the same scenarios and content, resulting in more consistent training outcomes. This reduces the need for multiple trainers, who may interpret or deliver training content differently, and minimises the risk of costly errors due to inconsistent training.

The immersive nature of VR accelerates learning and improves skill retention, with adaptive learning based on trainee performance. VR systems can collect data on trainee performance, enabling tailored instruction and data-driven improvement. As a result, VR is a powerful and efficient tool for training, resulting in improved confidence, engagement, and cost savings.

The use of virtual environments (e.g., Digital Twins)

Virtual environments, or Digital Twins, play a pivotal role in providing effective VR experiences for the mining industry. Digital Twins replicate mining environments and scenarios offering a diverse range of applications. This includes:

  • Immersive training simulators for heavy machinery operators
  • Safety training simulations to prepare mining staff for hazardous situations and emergency responses
  • Remote inspection and maintenance guidance provided through augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) technologies
  • Precise simulation of drilling and blasting operations
  • Real-time operator assistance using wearable AR devices
  • Data visualisation
  • Manufacturer and detailed product displays
  • 3D machinery manuals
  • Collaborative design and planning
  • Scaffolded training modules

Bringing 4D environments to life

Digital Twins, as dynamic models, can go beyond traditional 3D representations by incorporating the element of time (or 4D – referring to the fourth dimension). In doing so, stakeholders can simulate and observe how a project may evolve over its entire life cycle.

This has emerged as a powerful tool for enhancing the planning and execution of complex infrastructure projects. A significant benefit of 4D visualisations is the ability to help project managers and engineers identify potential issues before specific mining activities begin.

By simulating the entire process and visualising how various elements interact over time, teams can detect clashes, conflicts, or delays in the project schedule. This early detection of issues empowers project managers to make informed decisions, mitigate risks, and optimise resource allocation, ultimately resulting in more cost-effective and efficient project delivery.

Another key advantage of 4D visualisations is the ability to enhance communication and collaboration among project stakeholders.

By providing a comprehensive and intuitive representation of the project’s progress and outcomes, these visualisations make it easier for both technical and non-technical individuals to understand the intricacies of a mining project. This helps to foster improved collaboration between stakeholders such as architects, engineers, contractors, and internal/external clients, ensuring everyone is on the same page and reducing the likelihood of miscommunication or misunderstandings.

4D visualisations can also serve as a valuable marketing and public relations tool, as it enables project teams to present their plans and progress in a visually compelling manner, garnering support from local communities and regulatory bodies.

Digital twins and the use of 4D visualisations offer a holistic view of infrastructure projects, facilitating better decision-making, improved collaboration, and enhanced stakeholder engagement, all of which contribute to the successful and efficient execution of projects.

The future of VR in mining

The future of VR technology and simulations in the mining industry appears promising, with continued growth expected. As technology improves and becomes more affordable, VR will become more deeply integrated into training and safety programs.

Advancements in haptic feedback and realistic simulations are expected to further enhance the effectiveness of training, ensuring mining personnel are better prepared for the complexities and hazards of their work.

VR technology is set to play an increasingly crucial role in enhancing training, operational efficiency, and safety within the mining industry, positioning itself as a valuable asset for the sector’s ongoing development.

Footnotes:

  1.  Eckert, D., & Mower, A. (2020). The effectiveness of virtual reality soft skills training in the enterprise: a study
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