Interactive, immersive 3-D display systems, high-performance cloud computing and robust data management tools contribute to miners’ greater understanding of what lies beneath the surface

By Russell A. Carter, Managing Editor

In a dedicated room within the long-range planning department at Brazilian minerals producer Vale, project management staff can examine—and navigate—through existing or conceptual underground spaces, pit levels and plant layouts, using a wall-sized interactive 3-D display system that monitors the audience’s position within the room, altering the perspective of the visuals in the scene to give viewers a natural and accurate sense of scale.

In Mexico, a Canadian mining company with one working gold mine and an advanced gold project, as well as other exploration assets, doesn’t have enough skilled technical personnel to staff several separate locations. Goldgroup Mining, owner of the Cerro Colorado mine in northern Sonora and the Caballo Blanco project north of Veracruz, uses Gemcom’s Hub to efficiently transfer data between sites, maintain version control and maximize the time and resources of its limited staff.

And now, mineral explorers with a need to analyze geophysical data derived from airborne or ground-based gravity and magnetic surveys now can look to the ‘cloud’ for 3-D visualization of what lies deep under the earth, reducing the workload on in-house computers and the possible need to buy additional computing power.

Dating back from the dawn of the PC era in the early 1980s up to present-day focus on tablets, ruggedized laptops and highly capable smartphones, software has found countless uses in all aspects of mining. For an industry stretched to its limits by manpower shortages, project development in increasingly remote locations, and a rapidly growing need to collect, organize, transfer and analyze massive amounts of data to and from distant sites, software solutions are an indispensible tool for modern mine planning, development and operation. Here are just a few examples of what’s available, and how it’s being used.

Up Against the ActiveWall
Vale, the world’s second largest mining company, has adopted GeoVisionary software and installed a portfolio of Virtalis ActiveWorks 3-D visualization systems. Headquartered in Brazil, Vale operates in 38 countries and directly employs more than 126,000 people, as well as another 50,000 working on ongoing projects.

GeoVisionary was developed by Virtalis, in collaboration with the British Geological Survey, as specialist software for the high-resolution visualization of elevation and photography data overlaid with a wide range of geospatial data. The initial design goal was to ensure that data sets for large regions, national to sub-continental, could be loaded simultaneously and at full resolution, while allowing real-time interaction with the data.

According to Virtalis, one of the major advantages GeoVisionary offers over other visualization software is its ability to integrate very large volumes of data from multiple sources, allowing a greater understanding of diverse spatial data sets.

Vale’s ActiveWall draws on active stereo technology and features a custom rear-projection screen, specialist computer, Virtalis custom software and a powerful projector. Movements within the ActiveWall environment are tracked; this added functionality alters the perspective of the visuals according to the user’s position and orientation within the scene to give a natural and accurate sense of relationship and scale. A handheld controller allows the immersive experience to be enhanced further. The user can navigate through the virtual world, pick and manipulate component parts in real-time and make decisions on the fly.

Henry Galbiatti, Vale’s general manager for iron ore exploration, closed mines and manganese planning, explained: “We constantly have new projects in the pipeline aimed at helping Vale increase production, retain market share and maintain ore quality, so, naturally, long-term planning is crucial if we are to successfully bring our plans to fruition. The nature of our business is such that visualization is vital. When I visited the British Geological Survey’s Active-

Wall and also Northampton University’s ActiveCube, I saw at once that GeoVisionary running in a Virtual Reality environment was exactly what we were looking for.”

Vale also has acquired a portable ActiveMove system and a multi-screen desktop VR system. The company is using GeoVisionary not only for exploration and mine management, but also as an environment for staff training.

Galbiatti said GeoVisionary currently is being used on two major projects, “And then we hope to use the software on all our pipeline projects to help with mining, engineering and environmental matters. Already, we are finding that being able to see more data and having it in 3-D, we can visualize weaknesses and strengths within our projects much more easily and then act to make corrections faster. Once GeoVisionary is being routinely used, we’ll have to expand our hardware facilities too, so we are considering adding an ActiveCube, but we are moving one step at a time.”

Counting on the Cloud
Geosoft, a Toronto, Canada-based company that provides software for mapping and modeling the Earth’s subsurface, and technology for managing large exploration data sets, has released VOXI Earth Modeling, described as a cloud-based geophysical inversion software service that generates 3-D voxel models from airborne or ground gravity and magnetic data. VOXI is available as part of the Geosoft 2012 software release.

As noted by Geosoft, over the past decade 3-D geophysical modeling has become increasingly important to mineral exploration. The ability to convert geophysical measurements directly into 3-D images of subsurface rock properties that can be integrated with other exploration information in three dimensions enables resource explorers to extract significantly more insight from geophysical data.

“One of the important benefits of converting gravity or magnetic data into a 3-D earth model is that the visual end product allows explorers to see and understand the subsurface using now common 3-D viewing platforms,” said Ian MacLeod, Geosoft chief technologist. “VOXI produces a model of rock properties, which can be directly integrated with other surface and subsurface geologic observations.”

“We’ve designed VOXI Earth Modeling to fit naturally within an explorer’s workflow, and we’ve made it fast, recognizing that speed in generating 3-D inversions is a critical requirement that will allow geoscientists to use this tool routinely,” said Robert Ellis, Geosoft senior earth modeling scientist.

VOXI Earth Modeling, offered as a software service extension accessible within Geosoft Oasis montaj, is powered by cloud technology engineered by Geosoft to speedily conduct complex geo-computing using powerful cloud server farms, with minimal drain on the customer’s own computer systems.

How it’s Used
Although 3-D visualization is becoming increasingly in demand—particularly from a new generation of engineers and planners used to viewing graphical displays of almost everything—the more mundane mechanics involved in collecting, organizing and transferring huge data sets is another software-system capability that’s quickly reaching mandatory status.

Gemcom Software, which claims to be the largest global supplier of mining software solutions, with more than 4,000 sites using its software and customers in over 130 countries, has eight principal software packages that variously support exploration, mine planning, optimization and strategic mine planning, scheduling, mine production management, data management, and more. Its software includes the geology and mine planning packages Gemcom Surpac and Gemcom GEMS. While many of its products, such as Surpac, offer sophisticated 3-D visualization tools—and the com-

pany was, in fact, recently acquired by Dassault Systèmes, a specialist in 3-D design and visualization systems—Gemcom also has introduced some significant advances in mine planning, scheduling and data management products.

Mark Bese, Gemcom’s marketing manager, provided E&MJ with several examples of how the company’s products are used in common, but distinctly different, mining applications. For example, Tiger Resources’ Kipoi project, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, uses Gemcom Surpac for many functions throughout its open pit copper operation including block modeling, creation of dig blocks, monthly reconciliation, geological mapping, mine planning, and civil works. Where Surpac has been most beneficial to the operation, said Bese, is with grade control.

Rhonny Kazembe, chief mine geologist for Kipoi, described how Surpac has helped, “By using Surpac’s grade control results, we can locate ore according to grade category which allows us to maximize ore recovery while minimizing dilution. The final concentrate results clearly demonstrate that Surpac has improved our separation of high grade ore from low grade ore. Our customers have been very happy with the quality of our copper concentrate.”

Gold Fields Ghana’s Tarkwa gold mine also benefits from Surpac, using it in conjunction with Gemcom Whittle. With Whittle, the operation generates and selects the standard optimal pit shells from which they calculate their reserves, then exports the pit shells to Surpac to develop scheduling designs. Whittle has enabled them to rapidly generate multiple scenarios, and the minimum mining width feature has helped them create an improvement in cash flow through the scheduling of internal cutbacks.

The mine’s Chief Strategic Planning Engineer, Lucette Hugo, said, “Whittle allowed us to find scenarios that showed a clear improvement over the base cash flow and also to see where production targets may be reducing cash flow. We were able to quickly select and re-evaluate internal cutbacks.”

Samarco has been using Gemcom GEMS for more than a decade to support their open pit iron ore mining in Brazil. Samarco relies on GEMS for its data management capabilities, allowing the operation to better organize all of their different projects, survey, geology, and planning data into one central location, improving collaboration between users. Mine Planning Superintendent Luiz Eduardo Resende said, “With the updated technology it became possible for our geologists to work simultaneously on the same project information without risking data corruption. Accurate data models are key to our success, and by implementing the software we have been able to achieve greater security and reliability of our research and survey data.”

Because mining often occurs in remote locations, Gemcom has developed Gemcom Hub, a secure remote collaboration solution that enables mining professionals to work with and more easily share data regardless of where they are located in the world. It does this, according to Gemcom, by overcoming the challenges posed by poor quality, intermittent network connections with patent-pending technology that detects and transmits only the particular elements of the file that have changed. Whereas traditional transfer methods require an entire file to be transferred if the file has been updated, perhaps a block model that is gigabytes in size, Hub does not, sending only the data which has changed, which may only be kilobytes instead.

As mentioned in the introduction, Goldgroup Mining has employed the system to help them address challenges posed by not having enough skilled technicians to staff four different mine and project sites scattered across Mexico. By applying Gemcom Hub, Goldgroup was able to centralize data, overcome limitations of a low-bandwidth network thanks to rapid upload/download of data (only changes to files are transmitted), and secure, backup, and apply version control to data. Benefits achieved include transparency into operations at the four sites, centralization of limited staff to work on projects, and visibility across projects for senior managers.

Doing More with 64
Software system suppliers also are busily updating their flagship products to take advantage of 64-bit processors and operating systems. A 64-bit version of a program can dramatically improve performance over 32-bit versions in handling the large data arrays that are becoming commonplace in mining.

Maptek launched the 64-bit version of its Vulcan 3-D mining-software suite in April. “The handling of larger data sets has been a number one client request for some time,” said Eric Gonzalez, Vulcan product manager. “Benchmarking conducted in-house shows massive step-wise improvements in loading large data sets compared to 32-bit. This was supported by user experience, reported from the global 64-bit beta testing program run in the lead up to the release.”

Both 32- and 64-bit versions are shipped simultaneously under Vulcan 8.1.4. Data are compatible between platforms, allowing users running 8.1.4 32-bit to share data and projects seamlessly with 64-bit user colleagues. Vulcan 8.1.4 includes new options for resource modeling and short term planner tools, along with composited models for stratigraphic deposits, stripping ratio tools for stratigraphic models and improved grade shells.

The recently released Version 5 of Mintec’s MineSight Schedule Optimizer also incorporates 64-bit technology for faster processing power, and now allows planners to schedule bigger cuts and partial (percentage) cuts.

“Mining partial percentage cuts allows you to split a cut into multiple scheduling periods,” said Mintec Vice President Glenn Wylde. “So if a percentage of a cut is enough to achieve the target for a period, then the remaining percentage of this cut can be carried over to the next period.

“Depending on how detailed the scheduling is, a planner may want to design bigger cuts, which will save space, memory and run time. Version 5 offers the ability to split bigger cuts into multiple periods. For long-term and medium-term planning, you have the option of using bench reserves, in which an entire bench will be cut.

“Occasionally, mining operations are conducted on multiple benches simultaneously,” Wylde said. “In this case, a bench can be mined partially as long as the upper bench has opened up enough space for equipment and crew. Partial cut mining is essential in calendar-based scheduling.”