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The mine of the future will be digital

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The future of the mining industry in South Africa will be digital and information technologies will help the sector achieve its goals of better working conditions and improved mine economics.

Dr Bekir Genc of the School of Mining Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, opened the Mining into the Future conference by emphasising that the future of the mining industry in South Africa will be digital.

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Dr Bekir Genc of the School of Mining Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand

The conference was a collaborative partnership between Caterpillar, Barloworld Equipment (as the Cat southern African dealer), the Wits School of Mining, and the Wits Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems (CMMS).

Genc says the digital revolution is happening everywhere, and that it is soon going to happen to the mining industry – “if not today, tomorrow”. In recognition of this, the Wits School of Mining Engineering established a Digital Mine project to support the existing strategy of the mining industry to continuously improve working conditions and mine economics.

“Digital technologies are fundamental for efficient and safe mining where all systems are optimised,” says Genc. “This requires clarity of multiple sources of underground data, communicated to a surface control room and back to the workplace in real time. This is not happening yet. It requires an enormous amount of work, but some parties have started trying to establish these systems.”

In the first phase of the project, the School built a mock-up of an underground tunnel. This allows Wits to simulate an underground mining environment that can be used for teaching, learning and research. The 70m tunnel cost around R15m, and features a stope, rescue bay and lamp room, built with sponsorship from Goldfields, New Concept Mining and Sibanye.

Research is being conducted into smart surveying and mapping (visualisation) systems; climate control systems and energy savings (particularly important in deeper-level mines); smart rock engineering systems, which can monitor rock mass movement and predict seismic events; and smart data processing, which can locate people and assets and monitor their performance, recognise actions and detect abnormalities – such as recognising that someone is ill. Smart mine design, mining planning and decision-making are also being studied.

The Digital Mine project involves four phases, Genc says. Phase One – the building of the mock-up mine for research, teaching and learning – is complete. Phase Two – the building of a laboratory hosting digital technologies inside the mine – is in the advanced planning stages. Phases Three and Four – monitoring an underground environment for optimised mine design and processes, and having a digital mine integrated with a digital city and communities – are mostly conceptual, he says, and will require further funding to develop.

Genc expects the Digital Mine project to benefit the mining sector through providing access to a safe, smart mine laboratory reaching into the surrounding community on a multi-sensor GIS platform (once the lab has been developed), and providing knowledge to industry so that it can collect appropriate and accurate information to optimise mine designs and processes. This will enable continuous and predictive operations, while having a positive impact on mine efficiency and security. The latter is of particular relevance to gold mines, which face dangers to both mine shafts and mine employees as a result of the activities of illegal miners.

With digitisation, notes Genc, the concept of a Mine-to-Order (or Demand Mining) becomes a real possibility, contributing to productivity, mine bottom-line and transforming the mining industry through information technology. Perhaps most importantly, a digital mine will accelerate the process of reaching the industry’s zero-harm goal.

A variety of technologies that are under development will help make the digital mine a reality. Underground communications systems will enable real-time intervention to manage all types of risk. Underground drones will be able to see, map and collect data, and communicate it, and can also be used to map abandoned mines that are too dangerous to send people into. Smart data processing and 3D modelling is planned in the future, and will require participation from various Schools across various Faculties at Wits.

The Mining into the Future Conference took place on 1 and 2 July at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Boksburg. The theme for this year’s conference is “Improving productivity in a time of low commodity prices”. The conference offers delegates key insights and solutions, with the focus on such topics as machine fleet selection for either underground or surface mining; the latest trends on telematics and automation; preventative maintenance interventions; budgeting and planning; and parts inventory management.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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