Perth airport, Western Australia, early on a Monday morning is a sea of hi-viz as workers board aircraft for the 1000 mile flight to Dampier and other remote locations in the iron-ore rich Pilbara region. Faced with a significant skills shortage, the key players in the industry have introduced a range of mitigation measures including flying workers in every week from a major city rather than asking them to live in remote locations for extended periods.

Addressing the skills shortage The mining industry as a whole has also addressed the skills shortage by investing heavily in developing and deploying highly automated systems. BMT WBM has contributed to the successful move towards increased automation in a number of different ways including leveraging technology to make working conditions more appealing by allowing plant operators to work remotely. Drawing on its knowledge and experience of working in the mining machinery sector and especially in collision avoidance, the BMT WBM team has developed a cutting edge visualisation and control system that allows key operations such as loading and unloading of bulk ore cargos to be controlled from thousands of miles away from the site of operation.

The system works by using a virtual model of the unloading equipment, the vessel being loaded or unloaded, physical obstructions in the vicinity and any other environmental features such as tide levels. Having calibrated the virtual environment and by utilising a wide range of sensors including highly accurate, cost effective Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), mounted on the unloading equipment, the virtual model and real world equipment move as one. This allows the operator to control and manage the unloading equipment using the virtual model to provide an enhanced level of safety and productivity.

The video game connection BMT built its solution around an inexpensive, powerful, flexible and rapid software engine called Unity 3D that had been developed for the video gaming industry. Partnerships with academia brought the necessary knowledge to allow BMT to use Unity 3D to its full potential. By taking a pragmatic view and utilising existing, proven software that had already undergone significant development and refinement, the team from BMT was able to focus on maximising the functionality of the system rather than having to concentrate on resolving glitches in the software.

While developed for a completely different purpose, the gaming engine software proved to have a number of key synergies with the requirements for remote machine operation. The ability to change the operator’s viewpoint, or fly the viewpoint through solid objects to get a better perspective at the touch of a button just is not physically possible in the real world. The system allows the operator to program-in priority views that provide an automatic zoom-in if there is a collision risk or other need for closer inspection of part of the loading or unloading process.

Another key benefit of working in the virtual world is that once the virtual environment is set up and calibrated there is no limit to the number of people who can connect to the model concurrently and view it from whatever perspective they want to. This means that operational, maintenance or production staff can connect to the model and interrogate it for their own needs, from anywhere in the world.

The importance of exact replication A key element to ensuring the safety and success of working in the virtual world is guaranteeing that the models reflect their

real-world counterparts. The starting point is often the machine manufacturer’s computer aided design (CAD) drawings that can be easily converted digitally to create the basic model structure. The machines are then surveyed with a precision laser scanner to confirm the geometry and identify any modifications before the models are adjusted to match. Usually variations between design drawings and as-built are less that 50mm and precision laser survey will ensure that any discrepancy between real life and virtual model is less that 10mm.

Once the accuracy of the model is guaranteed, the final element of safeguarding a safe system of work is to ensure that there are fail-safes in place that will shut down the system automatically if there is a major failure of the monitoring equipment, or if contact with the control centre is lost. Introducing a modern version of the ‘dead man’s handle’ is very straightforward: The value-add for the client is deploying a system with internal diagnostics and multiple redundancy that can keep operational within the scope of the safe system of work even if a scanner, GNSS receiver or an antenna has been damaged. The internal diagnostics will identify the failure and flag the need to change out the failed piece of equipment.

Operating in the virtual world can deliver major benefits if suitable preparation and fail-safes are applied. With a global skills shortage, the benefits are equality applicable to operations in Africa and the Americas.

Loading iron ore into a large bulk carrier in Western Australia Loading iron ore into a large bulk carrier in Western Australia.
BMT WBM developed 3D Lidar (laser scanner) for obtaining complex ship and bulk product geometries BMT WBM developed 3D Lidar (laser scanner) for obtaining complex ship and bulk product geometries.
Virtual model of shiploading operation Virtual model of shiploading operation.