The Kumba VR Centre boasts a standing room where viewers are surrounded by curved 3D screens which place the viewer inside a virtual mining environment where scenarios can be played out safely. It also includes a small lecture hall with a similar wall-to-wall 3D screen. The rest of the renovated mining department is no less impressive. The main lecture hall includes computers under transparent desks. On the opposite wing, a large reception room can be used to host the myriad of mining industry officials and business people that visit UP. The floor also hosts most of the mining engineering offices.

The software behind the centre, powered by the Unity gaming engine, was designed by local company Simulated Training Solutions. The centre can be used for a variety of purposes, including renting out its use for companies to run simulations for otherwise dangerous scenarios, such as rock falls, underground shaft collapses and planned explosions. Its primary use will be for UP-based research in the mining department.

Above and beyond that, the Kumba VR Centre’s official opening also welcomed a new organisation to UP: the Mining Resilience Research Institute (MRRI). It is a group with the philosophy that all industries should contribute to the mining industry by developing solutions and improvements to the financial, social, environmental and productive aspects of mining in South Africa. It also aims to involve unions and the government’s Department of Mineral Resources to provide a universal forum for discussion. Most importantly, the MRRI will spearhead mining research at Tuks, spreading its relevance across almost every university faculty. As they say about industry in South Africa: “Either mine it or grow it.”

Prof. Ronny Webber-Youngman, head of the Department of Mining Engineering, sat down for an interview with Perdeby to discuss the making and inspiration of his project.

The primary goal of the mining department at UP is to educate more PhD students in the mining industry and give them an opportunity to research new mining technology. “[South Africa has] the lowest number of PhDs in mining in the world,” says Prof. Webber-Youngman, adding, “That’s the future. We need to have a technology drive. Who the hell is going to do that?” While South Africa boasts the best reserves of gold in the world, though they are too difficult to reach for traditional mining methods to be profitable. Prof. Webber-Youngman believes a dramatic increase in productivity through mechanisation and robotics is needed to revitalise the mining industry in South Africa.

With help from sponsors such as Anglo American, African Rainbow Minerals, Sasol and Harmony, all well-known mining companies in southern Africa and the world, he has been able to realise his dream of “making vision visible”, alluding to the mining department’s newfound ability to create and share mining ideas and simulations like never before. He calls this new creative class of mining experts “imagineers”.

Prof. Webber-Youngman has an ambitious vision for the mining department in the future. Years ago, he grew concerned about the degenerating ratio between staff and students. While student numbers in the department increased by over 400%, the staff remained constant. In an effort to increase the amount of staff in the department, he began to search for sponsorships from mining companies, who are legally obliged to spend a portion of their income on local infrastructure, education, and other worthy causes. In 1997, the mining department had eight staff members, six of whom were lecturers. Together they cared for 67 students. Today, the mining department has 400 students. Thanks to his efforts, the mining department consists of 34 staff members, only eight of whom fill permanent posts paid for by the university. The rest are supported by mining companies.

With 69 postgraduate students in the Department of Mining, ten of whom are PhD students, the mining department seems well on its way to their dream of being at the frontier of mining research in the world and “making vision visible”.

Photo: Stefan Stander

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