The Future of Mining Software

Tech Soft 3D

By Zach Violett, Tech Soft 3D

In the public imagination, mining is an industry powered by hardware — giant drills, rumbling bulldozers and other formidable pieces of equipment.

While hardware might always garner most of the attention, software plays an increasingly important role in every aspect of mining operations. A quick survey of how software is used today helps us understand where it is heading tomorrow.

Visualization is everything

In many cases, it is software’s powerful visualization capabilities that makes it so essential to an assortment of mining activities. When talking about visualization, it is important to note that visualization is not just viewing a 3D model. That is only the first step of the challenge; the most difficult part is enabling meaningful interaction and interrogation of that model.

These capabilities will only grow in importance, given the number of activities visualization touches within mining technology.

It starts with exploration software. When mining, companies take a terrestrial scan, drill down thousands of feet to sample the soil and then conduct a ‘block analysis’ of what is in the ground. This statistical analysis of soil samples creates blocks that fill in the gaps between the samples and estimates ore content within each block. This analysis requires statistical expertise and significant compute power, but it also requires a good way to visualize the results.

After exploration, planning and execution software guides how the mine will be excavated. Where will the material that is dug out go? How do you make sure that a pit wall does not collapse because too much material has been removed? Visualization has an important role to play here as well. With the advent of drones with LIDAR, monitoring actual mining progress is becoming an exact science. After flying a drone over a site and capturing a point cloud, companies can overlay that data onto a planning model to see how actual operations compare to the plan. Has a company dug more — or less — than they planned? Are they still digging in the right spot or have they veered slightly off course? Again, visualization is key in providing answers.

Even safety software benefits from powerful visualization. For example, once a pit mine has been dug, companies can scan the pit and perform slope analysis to see if any walls are too steep. These areas might come up ‘red’ in a visualization, indicating a dangerous slope that needs to be adjusted or buttressed. The bottom line? The importance of visualization cannot be overstated for mining software and the ability to deliver on this front is essential.

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modities, orebodies and mining methods.

GEOVIA Surpac™ is the world’s most popular geology and mine planning software, supporting opencast and underground operations and exploration projects in more than 120 countries. The software delivers efficiency and accuracy through ease-of-use, powerful 3D graphics and workflow automation that can be aligned to company-specific processes and data flows. Surpac addresses the requirements of geologists, surveyors and mining engineers in the resource sector and is flexible enough to be suitable for various commodities, orebodies and mining methods.

Figure 1. Display of statistical block analysis using Geovia.

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A move to web and mobile?

Picture a mine that is 10 km long, 5 km wide and 2 km deep that has been broken down into 1 m x 1 m x 1 m cubes. You are now dealing with a 100 billion cubes and — depending on how much metadata has been calculated and attached to each cube — hundreds of gigabytes, or even terabytes of information. How do you visualize that? How do you compute it?

Given the amount of processing power needed to create these massive data sets, mine visualization and interaction should not be limited to desktops; the ability to tap into the power of the cloud should enter the picture as well. Computer power is cheap and almost infinite. What might take days to computer on a desktop, can be parallelized and calculated on a collection of connected machines in a fraction of the time.

Connected devices are being used more and more onsite. Infrastructure at the mine site is making a shift towards the cloud, automation, the Internet of Things (IoT) and ‘the connected mine’. All machinery is equipped with GPS and is able to communicate back the the central control room its location and status. This connectedness and need for remote monitoring means a shift towards web and mobile for the software functions that have historically been carried out by desktop applications.

While the change will not happen overnight, this is where the industry is heading, and technology will need to be able to support this shift.

Reality becomes virtual

Another macro-trend that is guiding the future direction of mining software is the need to provide support for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) — because AR/VR is becoming less of a ‘gee whiz’ application and more of a practical planning and quality assurance tool.

Once a digital model of a mine has been created, a mining executive or other stakeholder can use a VR headset to experience a mine remotely in a much more compelling manner than memos, photos or video footage ever could. The executive can ‘stand’ in the mine, turn around in a full circle and really understand the state of the mine. One can imagine a situation where a foreman notifies the a site supervisor that there’s been a cave-in, and the supervisor uses VR to better understand the situation on the ground, the nature of the damage and how best to proceed.

In a more business-oriented scenario, VR provides an opportunity for existing mining company shareholders or potential investors to ‘visit’ a mine and see exactly what it is they are investing in, without having to travel across the globe. AR is evolving in interesting directions too, particularly with the development of items like smart helmets, which can overlay information onto mine surroundings. This type of clever and nonintrusive user experience — people are already required by law to wear a helmet inside of mines, so AR-powered helmets are a natural fit — will start opening the doors for AR within the industry. Mining software vendors will need to be ready to provide adequate support once those doors swing open.

Documentation, archiving and compliance Like any regulated industry, mining needs to document and archive various aspects of its operations. For example, if a safety incident occurs in the mine, the mining company can use a 3D model to archive an exact representation of what happened and store it for future reference in case they get audited five or 10 years down the road.

This is an ideal use case for 3D PDF, a file format capable of embedding 3D objects that can be opened by anyone with a copy of the ubiquitous Adobe reader. Because PDF is an ISO standard, it is a neutral way for mining companies to archive and document files and the file can be opened by any user on any computer. Aside from archiving crucial documentation, 3D PDF also assists with more effective collaboration and information sharing. There might be times when a member of the executive team, or perhaps an outside agency such as an auditor, does not have access to the mining software, but still needs to view and interact with the information contained in the models in order to reach a decision. 3D PDF gives them instant access to this information, which otherwise might require a very expensive software license in order to interact with the native file.

These varied use cases are increasingly important for mining technology to support moving forward.

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Tech Spotlight: RPMGlobal

RPMGlobal enables the Digital Mine with mining’s only integrated mining operational platform built on industry standards. RPMGlobal integrates planning and scheduling with maintenance, execution, simulation and costings on RPM’s Enterprise Planning Framework. This is the mining industry’s only operational platform that delivers insight and control across these core processes.

Figure 2. Material removal planning using Execute by RPMGlobal.

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One size does not fit all

Mining companies typically want to buy an off-the-shelf solution from one of the major mining software vendors – but sometimes a very specialized solution is called for. This is an opportunity for mining software vendors to take advantage of software development kits (SDKs) to rapidly address market needs not served by existing solutions.

Past, present and future

Even as mining software evolves towards the future, it needs to keep one eye on the past. A case in point is DWG. In the mining world AutoCAD’s DWG file format, which has been around for decades, is still heavily used. Even if they eventually move to the web, mining applications will need to be able to open, work with and support native CAD formats, particularly DWG.

In the meantime, data is only getting bigger and more complex. The data pool is only going to get bigger with the advance of IoT and the connected mine, giving mining companies one more thing to wrestle with.

The mining companies may have their work cut out for them moving forward, but mining software vendors are poised to keep pace with the challenges these companies face. By utilizing every tool at their disposal, they will be able to deliver software that meets the evolving needs of the industry well into the future.

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Tech Spotlight: MineRP and Northern Survey Supply

MineRP have built and created the MineRP CAD application using an OEM software development kit. It forms a key part of the suite of products that they provide to the mining industry. MineRP CAD is core to the Spatial Integration Platform offered by MineRP. Based on AutoCAD technology, MineRP CAD is a modern, fully functional CAD tool extended with industry-specific mining tools and optimised for efficient and accurate design and draughting work. A major differentiator of MineRP CAD is the fact that it interacts directly with

SpatialDB and does not proliferate proprietary CAD files, but rather extends the features of SpatialDB to offer seamless versioning, collaboration, and multidisciplinary information sharing.

Canada-based Northern Survey Supply has developed a mine survey software system called MOSS (which stands for Miner Operated Survey System) also by using an OEM SDK. They sell the software along with the all the necessary hardware as a complete system.

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This article was originally published in the July 2019 issue of Global Mining Review magazine https://www.globalminingreview.com/

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