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The Drift: Device bringing augmented reality to the mining face

Sudbury's NSS Canada and Cambrian R&D partnering on AR helmet harness

Coveralls, helmet, earmuffs, eye protection — augmented reality headset?

Thanks to a Sudbury mining service company, the high-tech headgear will soon be worn by miners underground alongside other tools of the trade.

NSS Canada, working in partnership with the Cambrian R&D Centre for Smart Mining, announced in August it’s developing a new harness that would attach augmented reality (AR) goggles to a miner’s helmet, enabling the technology to be used underground.

The company said it’s the first of its kind in the market.

Designed to work with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, miners wearing the harness would be able to access the Miner Operated Survey System (MOSS), a proprietary product developed by NSS Canada.

MOSS is used by underground miners to plan out blasting with greater efficiency. It pinpoints drill holes on the development face, creating the most efficient drill pattern to reduce waste. The system been shown to speed up the process and reduce overbreak by 10 to 15 per cent, according to the company.

Matthew Brown, NSS Canada’s general manager, said with the AR version of MOSS, users can access all drill information digitally, resulting in real-time updates to both the miner and to surface.

Wearing an AR headset, users can project the information directly onto the face, using hand gestures to apply changes.

It’s predicted to be more efficient, more precise, and safer than the traditional method of surveying, which requires workers to be at the face marking the drill holes with spraypaint.

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“In the underground mining environment, the face is most often the most dangerous place to be, because it is normally unbolted and unscreened until the very end of the workflow,” Brown said during an Aug. 30 product launch at the NORCAT Underground Centre where testing is ongoing.

“Because of that, there’s a higher chance of rockburst and other accidents by being susceptible to falling rock or any other kind of movement.

“So by developing this augmented reality technology, we’re able to bring the miner back away from the face to roughly (20 feet) and this allows the miners to be more efficient and safer, while still completing that workflow.”

Despite the technology’s cool factor, the harness design can’t sacrifice functionality or safety. Any headset would have to meet industry standards for a miner’s helmet, allowing the free movement of mandatory safety equipment like a miner’s cap light and earmuffs.

That’s where Cambrian R&D comes in.

As the applied research arm of Cambrian College, the centre specializes in working with industry partners to solve real-world problems, noted Mike Commito, Cambrian’s director of applied research and innovation.

On this project, NSS will be working with Cambrian R&D’s mechanical engineer and an engineering student to create a free-form design of a harness, which will eventually be prototyped before commercial release, he noted.

It’s an ideal partnership that reaps rewards for not only the company, but also the college and its students.

“For us, I think the key benefit of doing a project like this with an industry partner is it helps us give a student an experiential learning opportunity doing an actual problem, solving a real-world challenge,” Commito said.

“It also gives NSS access to talent that we have in our students and our engineering groups, as well as the equipment and technology we have to do these types of prototype developments.”

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Brown said NSS expects development of both the software and hardware to be completed by the end of the year.

Technica Mining, a Sudbury underground mining and construction contractor, has come on board as an early adopter and will further test the system in real-world scenarios.

A commercial version of the package should be available in early 2023.

“We’re hoping, with the feedback we get from Technica and the speed at which Cambrian R&D can innovate, we should have something that we can start offering the mines and other contractors probably by Jan. 1 next year,” Brown said.

NSS is already looking ahead to future uses of the technology.

Any information, whether written on paper or displayed on a computer screen, can be projected in augmented reality, said Brown, suggesting it could be used for collision avoidance or fatigue detection.

“We don’t really fully understand the limits of this technology yet.”

Yet, as forward-thinking as it may be, the technology’s only useful if it’s adopted by the people it’s designed for: miners.

Brown said NSS is banking on brand recognition and the reputation of the company and its services to engender trust amongst companies and workers, which should make for an easier transition to the use of AR underground.

Eventually, he anticipates the headset will become just another piece of equipment a miner dons as part of their everyday work attire.

“We’re hoping to try as much and really innovate in that space so that miners don’t just wear it for one part of their day,” Brown said.

“We’re hoping that there’s enough usability and enough of a benefit of the system that they don’t want to take the system off; it’s now a part of their daily workflow.”