One of the world’s greatest historical treasures lies hidden away in the Ardèche region of southern France. Here, halfway up a limestone cliff face is the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave. Discovered in 1994 and declared a World Heritage site in 2014, the grotto contains hundreds of prehistoric cave paintings dating back more than 35 000 years.
In a country that already boasts the Louvre in Paris (with its 9 million-plus annual visitors), France was – as you’d expect – keen to exploit the tourist value of this unique artistic site, yet reluctant to expose these fragile artworks to the toxic breath and dirty footprints of busloads of tourists. So, in April 2015, it did the next best thing. It built a life-sized replica a few kilometres away from the real thing.
Now visitors can stroll through a polysty-rene scale model of the Chauvet Cave. Built at a cost of EUR55 million, the replica cave was painstakingly created using state-of-the-art 3D modelling technology.
What does this have to do with mining? Nothing – and everything, because the same technology that allowed the French Ministry of Culture to reconstruct the natural interior of Chauvet Cave is enabling mine planners to build virtual models (real and predictive) of complex mining networks hundreds of metres below the ground’s surface.
Raoul Jacquand is the CEO of GEOVIA, which is part of French 3D design company Dassault Systèmes’ brand portfolio. While attending the recent PDAC Convention in Toronto, Canada, he spoke to Mining.com about how three-dimensional modelling is changing the way mining firms do business.
‘They do a much better job when they can monitor their assets in 3D and have a 3D visualisation of the mine’
‘The human being was designed with 3D bandwidth,’ he said. ‘As a result we apprehend things much better when we see them in 3D. That is true for us in our everyday life, but it is also the truth in the workplace.
‘In the case of a geologist or a mining engineer, they do a much better job when they can actually monitor their assets in 3D and have a 3D visualisation of the mine.
‘3D is not just about creating a three-dimensional representation of an object – it is also a way to represent processes and all the various dimensions that come about. It’s a very powerful tool.’
As Jacquand pointed out, 3D modelling has a relatively long history in the mining industry. In 2012, 3D modelling helped Middle Eastern miners uncover a deposit of more than 500 000 tons of metals – including zinc, copper, lead, aluminium, silver and gold – on the notoriously tricky southern slope of the Caucasus between the Black and Caspian seas.
In 2014, Barberton Mines Ltd used a ZEB1 hand-held laser mapping system to map excavations at depths of up to 1 450m, with pinpoint accuracy.
‘The results we are getting using the ZEB1, combined with our Mine Works GIS [geographic information systems], are better than we could have imagined,’ Koos Verster, the company’s chief surveyor, told the media.
‘We normally strive for 95% or higher accuracy but this combination is delivering 100% – not to mention the increase in productivity we have achieved. The ZEB1 is also withstanding our difficult environment, performing better than we hoped.
‘It has been to some of the most extreme reaches of the mine for prolonged periods of time, yet shows no undue effects.’
So far, though, the use of 3D has largely been limited to modelling of the ore bodies themselves. ‘The journey that we would like to take our customers [on] is 3D conceptualisation of the whole mining operation,’ said Jacquand. ‘This is something we have ambition to realise because it has been proven to work in other industries, such as automotive, aerospace and global manufacturing.’
This approach changes the concept of ‘mine design’ from where it was (in other words, the physical planning and mapping of the mine) to where it’s going, namely an integrated design approach.
‘It’s already occurring on a small level and we’re seeing more and more interest in it from the big IT and mining software players’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Declan Vogt, director of the Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems at Wits University. ‘3D design is just how it’s done now,’ he says. ‘The major mine design packages are all 3D, and they all think about things in three dimensions.
‘The next thing is going to be how you monitor that design – and how you keep track of things and ensure that the mining is occurring according to that design.’
Enter 4D mapping, which uses cloud technology to stream 3D geospatial data, enabling rapid access to information related to real-time activities in the mine.
‘Underground, widespread implementation of sensors – and related communication systems – is the next big thing,’ says Vogt. ‘It’s already occurring on a small level and we’re seeing more and more interest in it from the big IT and mining software players.’
To continue the Chauvet Cave analogy, this level of technology would allow the mine operator to not only map out a scale model of the inside of a mine, but also provide real-time information on how many people are in the mine, what their breath is doing to the air down there, and how their feet and hands are effecting the structural integrity of the mine pit. This makes mine design a dynamic, ongoing process.
It’s a complex process, too – not helped by the fact that the software packages used by South African mine planners are not always adequate for the intended purpose.
In 2014, Wits University’s School of Mining Engineering lecturer Bekir Genc conducted his PhD research on this exact topic. ‘Every piece of software comes with limitations,’ he wrote in his doctoral thesis.
Another issue is that mining companies often make their software choices based on individual user preference – and that choice often changes when a new mine planner is employed. ‘The staff turnover within the mining industry is historically high, so competent mine planning software users tend to move around quite often,’ he wrote.
‘If the new appointee is not familiar with the existing mine planning software package, the mine may consider purchasing a new mine planning software package that the new appointee is familiar with.’
Speaking at the July 2015 Mining Into The Future conference in Gauteng, South Africa, Genc echoed Vogt’s sentiments that the future of the mining industry will revolve round digital developments. In his address, Genc noted that digitisation would allow the concept of a bespoke, made-to-order mine (known as ‘demand mining’) to become a real possibility in the future.
‘Underground communication systems will enable real-time intervention to manage all types of risk,’ he said. ‘Underground drones will be able to see, map and collect data – and communicate it – and can also be used to map abandoned mines that are too dangerous to send people into.’
Genc added that, perhaps most importantly, ‘a digital mine will accelerate the process of reaching the industry’s zero-harm goal’.
Indeed, mine design and planning has taken on an even greater importance since the release of the second and revised draft of the Standard for Responsible Mining, in early April.
The first-ever global certification programme for industrial-scale mine sites, the draft standard is the result of 10 years of collaboration between groups from the global mining industry, organised labour, NGOs, impacted communities and businesses.
The standard is – in the words of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance – being designed to ‘emulate for industrial-scale mine sites what has been done with certification programmes in organic agriculture, responsible forestry and sustainable fisheries’. Perhaps its biggest impact, however, is in how it’s making mining companies view their mines as workplaces.
With working mines seen through that lens, the planning, design and monitoring thereof become all the more significant. And while 3D technology settles in as the industry standard, it is laying the foundation for safer, more thorough mining operations in the future.