| May 29, 2024

A virtual and robotic revolution in Australia’s mining industry could spell the end of fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers within years, according to one of the country’s leading geologists and immersive technology experts.

Virtual and augmented reality, along with automation, are transforming the mining sector, says UniSA Professor Tom Raimondo, allowing more work to be done remotely, saving time, money and removing many of the risks and travel for workers.

Professor Raimondo, Dean of Programs for Information Technology and Mathematics at the University of South Australia, is leading the development of VR and AR platforms to enhance core logging with machine learning, create fully digital reconstructions of mining operations, and even simulate the drilling process.

This innovative work has been facilitated through the MinEx CRC, the world’s largest mineral exploration collaboration. It includes projects such as the RoXplorer digital twin, an ultra-realistic simulation of the drill site of the future, and the Exploration Metaverse, a collection of immersive AR and VR platforms to collaboratively view and analyse complex mining data with colleagues and experts from across the world in real time.

“Globally, it is becoming more difficult and more expensive to discover new mineral deposits because they are deeper than they have ever been,” says Prof Raimondo.

“It is also more difficult to extract and process minerals. VR and AR platforms give us a better way to visualise and interpret highly complex data and spatial information and make good decisions about where we should be targeting our exploration efforts.”

The RoXplorer digital twin, which replicates a drill site and its operations, enables industry workers to virtually run repeated drilling simulations safely and efficiently, with zero environmental impact.

“In terms of training workers, it also removes the hazards. Mining is inherently a dangerous activity, so the more we can transition to autonomous systems, the better off the mining industry will be.”

His Project LIVE team in collaboration with UniSA’s Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments (IVE) is also exploring the potential of digital twins for other industries that involve hazardous processes, including forestry, construction and fire management services.

Prof Raimondo explains that these technologies will enable Zero Entry Mining, where all operations are done remotely and the miners of the future will interact with digital twins and autonomous robots rather than rock cuts and blast sites.

“This technology is improving all the time. If you think back to even 10 years ago, we almost exclusively relied on desktop computers or even pen and paper to interpret data. It was often clunky, slow, and done out of context. Now we’re integrating VR headsets, mobile phones and wearable technology like AR goggles to do this analysis much more rapidly and doing it in situ, with data informing our decisions every step of the way.

“Instead of being constrained to a small desktop display, keyboard and mouse, we now have the full 360 degrees of our surrounding environment to interpret things more accurately and intuitively, freeing up our hands, giving us space to think, and engaging our brain in a different way. It’s a very exciting future.”

A video explaining this technology can be viewed here.