Mining usually doesn't stir images of iPhone-like state-of-the-art technology. However, students of mining here in Southeast Alaska and eventually students from Canada and other countries now have a place to go to train on simulated heavy equipment in the only school with an underground mining simulator in the United States.
The simulator, housed in what looks like a cargo container, was shipped around the Horn of Africa and arrived in Juneau about six months ago. It is now installed at the UAS technical facility near Aurora Harbor.
The mining center had to look to South Africa for the technology as no outfit in the U.S. builds mining simulation of this sophistication. South African technicians traveled to Juneau to help shake out the bugs and train UAS mining instructors on the technology.
The simulator, named Cybermine, was created by ThoroughTec Simulation based in South Africa. It will be used to prepare entry-level miners for hard rock mining jobs and to provide opportunity for seasoned miners to hone their skills.
Half of the cost of the $800,000 simulator was covered by a 2010 capital budget appropriation and half from the University of Alaska Workforce Development program.
The University of Alaska Southeast is the only educational institution in the United States with an underground hard rock mine training simulator.
Trainees operate the simulator with controls similar to what they would find in equipment on the job. The controls can be swapped to simulate several equipment types.
Sam Reeves, mine training coordinator of the University of Alaska Mine and Petroleum Mining and Petroleum Training Service said the UAS simulator has three types of interchangeable equipment controls — underground haul trucks, underground load-haul-dump truck, both known as “muckers”, and an underground bolter.
The operator’s seat and controls sit atop a motion platform to give the sense of uneven ground, the rumble of the engine, gear engagement and even a simulated blown tire.
Instructors work from their own cockpit and can guide and evaluate trainees during simulation. This control allows instructors to introduce emergency situations into the simulator and track trainee response. Such training is typically not practical on real-world mining equipment.
Trainees have access to equipment from all major manufacturers of heavy mining equipment — Caterpillar, Komatsu, Sandvik, Atlas Copco, Hitachi, Volvo, Bell, Bucyrus, P&H, Terex and Liebherr. These manufacturers provided operational details of their equipment to “accurately model the behavioral characteristics of the systems and subsystems of the equipment being simulated, such as engines, braking systems, suspensions and hydraulics sub-systems,” according to ThoroughTec’s website.
The operator can feel the simulated rotation of tires and how the machinery interacts with the terrain — a grating sound accompanies impact with the mine walls and a high speed crash will even crack the simulated windows.
Tim Geehan tried his hand at the simulator. Geehan is a long-time miner who works with Coeur Alaska. Typically, heavy equipment operation is an entry-level position, Geehan said, and he said he hasn’t driven an underground haul truck in more than a decade.
After shaking off his driving rust, Geehan said he believed the simulator definitely had potential. However some useful cues were missing, he said.
“The smell wasn’t there,” Geehan said. “The smell of flint and sulfur when you hit steel against rock.”
“And the pressure of doing well around your peers wasn’t there,” Geehan said. Which may not be the case for trainees with their classmates watching over their shoulder, he said.
Geehan said the real lessons come “once they hit an air and water line and they have to come to a screeching halt — slow up production — and fix it, you’ll know better not to hit that thing next time.”
Juneau Rep. Cathy Muñoz was recognized by UAS for her role in helping procure the simulator. She said she was first made aware of the need for a training simulator in Alaska at a miners’ breakfast several years ago.
There was a need to “get people trained on the more technical jobs at the mine,” Muñoz said. “We didn’t have that level of training capability in the community.”
Now, Muñoz said, “We are the only school in the nation with underground mining simulation.”
High school students interested in the mining industry, from geology to engineering to heavy equipment mechanic, are benefitting from a recent change to state statute, Muñoz said.
“We passed legislation to allow companies that make direct investments in K-12 and post-secondary education to receive a 50 percent tax credit,” Muñoz said.
Shortly after, Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island, owned by Hecla Mining Company, made a $300,000 contribution to the Juneau school system to start a high school mining program.
During the program, students learn safety procedures, equipment operation and get an opportunity to spend time in an underground mine and job-shadow professional miners.
Jack Clark, Zack Bicknell and Hunter Kirkpatrick are all seniors, enrolled in the mining program at Juneau-Douglas high school. They said they are about halfway through their three-month program.
They said the class invites representatives of different mining occupations, from permitting to drilling, to stop by. In March the seniors will get a chance to go underground at Greens Creek.
“We’re going through and doing every main occupation,” Bicknell said.
He said mining was in his family. He said he likes the physical work of mining. “Get your hands dirty and make some money,” Bicknell said.
Clark said he’s always had mining industry people around him, his father being one, and this impression got him interested in the class.
Kirkpatrick said he signed up for the class to explore his options after graduation.
“It’s a good way to find out about what local things we can do here in town,” Kirkpatrick said, “because I like living here.”
Kirkpatrick said he also appreciates the contacts he’s making.
“We meet the guys who will get us to the next step,” Kirkpatrick said.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org