BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA)'s Broadmeadow Mine in Queensland's Bowen Basin is changing the way it prepares its people for the underground mining experience, using virtual reality to teach operators about the hazards and risks before stepping foot underground.
The technology immerses the operator in a simulated underground environment, where miners can be trained in real life scenarios and test their responses to hazards in a safe environment.
Nathan Parsons, manager for Special Projects at Broadmeadow Mine, has led the program for the past 18 months, working with Coal Services and a number of experienced operators to develop the training package.
"Virtual reality will revolutionise the way underground miners are taught about safety," Parsons said. "Up until now, the only way you could truly understand what you're being taught is to actually experience it, and now, we can recreate real scenarios and put people in an immersive environment where they can learn hands on."
The technology places users in a variety of scenarios and environments that cannot be easily created in real life, and then trains them on what to do if they are ever confronted with these situations. To make the scenario as real as possible, the team replicated the Longwall environment at Broadmeadow Mine, providing users the option to be a Shearer or Chock Operator.
David Thorpe, who has been a Longwall operator for more than 10 years, was part of the team who developed the virtual reality package and believes the technology will benefit everyone, from those who are new to the industry, to even the most experienced operators.
"This simulation is the best I've seen with everything looking exactly as it does underground (apart from the colours)," Thorpe said. "As part of this package we wanted to build in a number of different scenarios which can all occur when working on the Longwall.
"For example, we have a roof cavity scenario where the coal falls through the flippers from above. While this isn't something that happens regularly, it can occur, so if we can prepare our people to manage the situation in a safe environment, they will be better prepared to deal with it."
Adding to the experience, the virtual reality technology allows users to move into a number of different locations, including into hazardous zones you normally would not have access to. This makes for a more holistic training experience that allows users to better understand their working environment.
"Not only can we expose and train people who have never been underground to point out the potential dangers or risks, but the great thing about this technology is that the equipment is available 100 percent of the time day or night," Thorpe said.
Parsons believes getting the input and working closing with operators such as Thorpe, was a key part of the technology's early success at Broadmeadow.
"Bringing a number of our experienced Longwall operators into the team to help develop this package was a key part of the process. They're the ones who work in that environment every day so their feedback and input was critical," Parsons said. "I think with all types of training, even outside of mining, the challenge is that there's a difference between what your read and what you listen to as opposed to what you actually do.
"We're really excited to already see that our operators are retaining more information with virtual reality when compared with more traditional methods of training. It's a great demonstration of how technology can be used to train our people and prepare them for what they will experience underground..
"And while VR isn't a new technology, it's now become more much more available, user friendly and more immersive in the last few years.
"Ultimately, we want a fully functional underground environment in which we can train all operators in before they actually step foot underground."