How mine surveyors created self-service data for every user on one of Africa’s largest coal mines

When Thys Smith, Exxaro’s survey manager on Grootegeluk coal mine, realised that 60% of his work day comprised serving information request about geospatial data, he tasked draughtsman Beyers du Randt to start work on a digital mapping system that would allow users to access the data themselves.

The data that users requested were important to the operations and functioning of the mine, and fall firmly in the domain of the mine survey office. Requests vary wildly – from data needed for finding a defective conveyor belt among the 255 other conveyors, to navigating the facility.

Grootegeluk, situated near Lephalale in South Africa’s Limpopo province, is an open-pit coal mine which produces 26 Mtpa coal using a conventional truck and shovel operation. The mine supplies two power stations among other clients, and suffice to say, it is a large site with expansive operations and many facilities, including a production plant.

Du Randt only recently entered the geospatial profession, but keenly set out on foot with his laptop in hand to map and photograph each building on the mine. It became the first dataset to be accessible as an online map on Exxaro’s GIS portal, built on Esri’s ArcGIS geospatial information management software.

Today, there are four such online (browser-based) maps available online to all Exxaro employees. The other three maps include a map tracking all the shovel and drill operations; another visualises mining depths with colour-codes, and third map showing the drill actuals compared to planned holes.

The most difficult part according to Du Randt was deciding what info to publish, which required understanding the end-user’s needs. It’s the reason for creating four maps, each with a distinct function. It also avoids the problem of overwhelming users with all the information in one map, even if it is technically possible to have it in one map. (Another challenge was gaining access to various core databases.)

Each element in the map is searchable and includes attributes as well as attachments to relevant information/documents. Layers and filters further help users find what they are looking for. Collectively the maps provide live insight into the operations which are as useful to managers as to workers in the field. The workbench maps with mining depths also allows for instant quality control.

Only “actuals” are mapped, and the map data is drawn from various operations’ SQL databases. Besides the live overlays showing the location of drills and shovels, which come from integrating dispatch system data, the maps are updated weekly – a timeframe seen as sufficient for most operations. It also means that short outages, should they occur, are not problematic. Importantly, as the maps only visualise “actuals”, all the independent systems continue to work even if the maps are not available or offline. For the same reason Smith and Du Randt both emphasise the importance of including data and timestamps on the map data for version control. Drones are used to provide the basemap imagery for the maps, and are updated weekly too.

Users were initially hesitant to use the maps – in part as they weren’t sure whether they could trust the data, and because some employees in the production teams considering it a tool for management to exercise more control. However, they adopted it soon after using it and realising the value of the data.

The user-interface and map design were intentionally user-friendly, requiring minimal user training other than a basic introduction workshop. More eyes on the map also helps identify and correct errors more quickly. Back-end map analytics such as visitors and click rates further provide Smith and Du Randt with information on map performance and potential areas of improvement. Du Randt speaks of the importance of getting online maps the first time, by explaining that if a user doesn’t find it useful the first time, they won’t revisit the map.

There are grand plans in the works, including the ability to get pit volume updates on a per shift basis by employing an advance laser scanning system, to incorporating more live data in more maps with greater functionality. In general, the mine’s policy is towards data centralisation, and Exxaro is currently investing in data lakes for this purpose.

Du Randt and Smith’s advice on where to start a mine digitalisation process: start somewhere, anywhere.

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