Blasting out a stope inside an underground mine hasn't always been a precise process.
But a North Bay technology company has been steadfastly working to change all that.
After three years of development, iRing INC. has brought a software package to market that could take mine planning to another level.
While Chris Preston, a 40-year veteran of explosives manufacturing, was teaching at Queen's University's mining school, he was witness to a whole host of dubious blasting practices.
"When you get exposed to mining through an academic route, you can see bad practices extend out just like a sore thumb," said Preston, now a consulting engineer at iRing.
As specialists in underground blasting applications, iRing had developed an earlier namesake version of the software to optimize ore recovery that proved initially successful internationally, but had limitations.
Users had to run it in conjunction with a CAD (computer-aided drafting) system, which was too cumbersome and time-consuming to use.
With Industrial Research Assistance Program funding, the iRing team developed an intuitive new version, Aegis, that was released last December.
"AEGIS is iRing on steroids," and is used to design blasting rings, the drill hole patterns filled with explosives that separate valuable ore from the host rock, said Preston.
It's a stand-alone blasting software that runs independent of AutoCAD or MineCAD. Where once the planning process for blasting took weeks and months, it can be done in less than a minute on Aegis.
"Once you define where the drilling is starting, the blast for the whole stope is done in less than 10 seconds," said Preston.
The program can lay out various blasting scenarios for mining planners based on the kind of explosives, rock types, the associated costs, and predict how effective the ring pattern will be in removing a volume of ore.
A reporting mechanism can send the layouts to the underground drillers.
"Instead of setting up blasts and seeing how it does, if you can do it on the computer, and if it gives you some accuracy, then people really trust it," said Preston.
One of the company's supporters has called Aegis a "gamechanger."
"Designing AEGIS has been a dream for me," said Preston. "When you consider they used to do this with paper, pencil and a protractor, we've come light years ahead."
A second module, Aegis Analyzer, allows mine planners to fine-tune their patterns with such predictive modelling capabilities as blast recovery revenue forecasts.
"It allows you to see what your dilution will be, the value you get in creating the cavity, and if you removed all your ore or did you break into the boundaries and bring in some (other) rocks," said Preston.
But some of the biggest roadblocks to this technology were the mine planners who designed blasts according to their own individual standards, said Preston.
"If you have 10 planners all doing their own designs, it's not the best way to set up a best practice."
The records they kept were usually on handwritten notes. When those veteran mine planners retired, so went that institutional knowledge.
Aegis also serves as a record-keeping repository that's able to call up past blasts and document the results according to rock type and explosives.
Preston sees no reason why blasting an underground cavity can't be done with such a high degree of precision that it eliminates some downstream processing.
"We believe using the tools that we're developing, there will come a time where you might not need a crusher underground. You can be confident in your blasting methodology — knowing what your rock and explosive properties are. Wouldn't it be amazing if you could use the blasting process as your primary crusher?"