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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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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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