The virtual and augmented future of mining

By Quentin Staes-Polet, regional director, South Asia, Unity Technologies

The energy industry in Australia is evolving, with a huge influx of new technologies right across the business spectrum.

While many of these involve the actual production and storage of energy itself, such as the Tesla battery being deployed in South Australia, there are all sorts of systems and solutions working behind the scenes to make organisations safer, more productive, ensure business continuity and the continual improvement of modern practices.

Two new technologies that are probably not on most people’s radar yet but are making their way into our daily lives, could stand to revolutionise the way we train and prepare for our roles in the industry – Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR).

VR, and more recently AR, have been appearing broadly in the media of late, but are most commonly associated with entertainment. Pokémon Go just celebrated its first birthday, having made an enormous impact on the mobile gaming world late last year.

Millions of people worldwide headed out to catch Pokémon on their mobile phones, as they experienced first-hand the new phenomenon of AR.

Virtual Reality also has its roots in the gaming and entertainment sector, providing an immersive gaming experience whereby people are made to feel that they are actually experiencing the three-dimensional world presented through their headset device, and in some cases moving around in a fully lifelike virtual world.

So, how does Augmented and Virtual Reality relate to the energy production and distribution industry? AR is positioned to be the next major breakthrough in safety and training, and Virtual Reality (VR) has the potential to become involved in many fundamental parts of the generation, storage, transmission and distribution processes, from training and HR through to mapping, business intelligence and automation.

Creating a safer field environment

AR overlays interactive digital information by superimposing virtual, computer-generated objects on top of the physical world, while VR replaces the real world with a simulated one. In an energy industry context, each of the above offers major benefits to existing roles and procedures.

AR allows for the super-imposing of one scene on top of another, which can then map out changes in landscape – and point out subsidence, water damage, and other geographical features that might place workers or assets in danger.

Making time-lapse images of an area can point out in very clear detail how a landscape has been altered, either by human intervention or natural events. This can also be very useful in creating smart images and graphics of proposed infrastructure, helping to map out and visualise the impact of new projects.

For example, Brisbane-based company Fugro Roames overlaid images of storm-affected areas in Queensland, spaced out three months apart, to produce a sophisticated image on storm damage and subsequent repair work. Predictive analytics mapped areas that require attention, as well as areas that might still be dangerous due to erosion and changing topography.

The same AR technology can be applied to sub stations and power plants, creating predictive analysis maps of sites by overlaying actual imagery with predictive analysis of things like soil erosion, impact of new infrastructure on a local area, and so forth.

Armed with such data, companies can use AR to help workers see useful data overlaid in front of their view in a “heads up” display. Miners can receive updates on elevation and pressure, receive safety warnings and communications from central control and share the view from their front facing cameras to supervisors – creating a safer field experience.

Learning without borders

AR/VR also provides much in terms of learning, without being in the field itself. Rather than following the usual path of learning, where staff members first study the theory of a new device, tool or situation, then get supervised, hands-on experience of using it, VR offers a much more realistic, immersive and fundamentally more engaging way of learning.

It is difficult to recreate many outdoor and technical experiences in a classroom setting, but using 3D-simulated images can create an authentic experience of many different workplace scenarios, enabling students to get a full, lifelike experience without ever having to leave the classroom.

This is especially helpful for learning to safely deal with the hazardous situations that are encountered in the production and distribution of energy.

With VR technologies being significantly cheaper than building mock-up situations to train employees, allowing staff to practise their skills in a safe environment has never been easier.

Businesses can introduce VR as part of a safety-first education, where staff can be placed into a very lifelike working experience and tested under a range of scenarios – including those that are potentially dangerous.

Developing confidence and fast reactions to difficult situations may just be the difference between safety and disaster when similar situations occur in a real-life environment, so being mentally and physically equipped to deal with them makes a big impact on fuel and electrical safety.

Increasing mine yield

Energy plants and the businesses that run them typically produce tonnes of data – from geological features through to mine plans, gas management, energy storage and how equipment performs.

With VR and AR, all of this information can be combined and overlaid in one visual environment, enabling engineers to better analyse and interpret data in a way that was not possible before.

With such data, VR can be used to improve energy storage and distribution. By running simulations of different supply and demand scenarios, historical weather patterns, consumer behaviour and other factors, it is possible to gain deep insights into productivity and make better decisions about power consumption and supply.

VR and AR are technologies set to make a big impact on the world in the very near future, and stand to improve the way that we learn about, observe and interact with many aspects of running our energy grid.