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Australian Mine Safety Simulator Could Save Lives in China

A worker shovels coal at coal mine owned by Puda Coal Inc. in Pinglu, Shanxi province. Puda Coal Inc, an independent coking coal producer in northern China's Shanxi province, (File)

Groundbreaking virtual reality technology developed in Australia has been sold to China where it will be used to improve the safety of mine workers. The iCinema system is a 360-degree, 3D safety simulator that teaches miners how to survive life-threatening events underground. It has been installed at one of China's leading mine safety research installations, the Shenyang Institute of Coal Technology and Engineering Group.

This experimental program allows miners to step into a virtual underground world and feel part of the scenery.

Participants are surrounded by a circular screen and wear 3D glasses. They are immersed in the simulated environment through flowing images from 12 projectors and a 24-channel sound system.

Up to 30 trainees can take part at one time. They can ride on a virtual underground mine vehicle that travels through a labyrinth of tunnels modeled on an actual mine in Australia’s New South Wales. Participants say they feel like they can reach out and touch the simulated roof bolts.

The head researcher, Professor Dennis Del Favero, is the director of the iCinema Research Center at the University of New South Wales.

“We believe it will almost certainly save lives because there is nothing like real life simulation. Miners require a high level of skill. They face dangers that are unparalleled in many ways and probably the only parallel with the dangers of working in a mine is working as a member of the defense force in a battlefield,” said Del Favero.

China’s mining industry is the most dangerous in the world. In recent years, officials estimate averages of six miners are killed on the job every day. Chinese authorities have closed down hundreds of illegal mines and increased safety inspections to try to reduce the danger.

The Australian-made simulator is in many ways similar to a giant video game aimed at preparing miners to recognize the danger signs for a variety of hazards. One of the biggest threats in coal mines are gas explosions and the simulator tries to prepare miners for the worst.

“The trainee would realize they would have been killed in that event if it happened underground. But what they can actually do in the simulator is move through the event and look at the physical damage it does to people but also the physical consequences and physical damage it has on machinery,” Del Favero explained. “And we’re now moving through, we’re trailing through and all around us we can see the consequences, the destruction of the outburst.”

The project has taken seven years to develop at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, through the collaboration of the College of Fine Arts, the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Mining. There has also been input from the mining industry, trade unions and the government.

The technology is used at four sites around New South Wales, where it has trained thousands of people during the past three years.