Applying a creative engineering mindset to upkeep mining inspections
With a love for the creative arts, software engineer Dominic Roux, who specialises in machine learning and industrial automation, enjoys reading, playing guitar, painting and writing stories in his free time. He is graduating with his Master’s in Engineering from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University’s graduation at the end of the month (March 2023).
Initially, Dominic was torn between studying engineering or animation, but decided to pursue electrical and electronic engineering “because of a fascination with the hacker culture and a love for problem-solving”.
His research investigated using a Boston Dynamics’ Spot® robot for automating housekeeping inspections in a mining plant. Managers must regularly do these inspections but often have more pressing concerns.
“For my project, the robot would perform autonomous plant walks, collecting image data along its route (the autonomous navigation ships with the Spot model). The collected data would be passed through an advanced image neural network to identify hazardous objects in the plant. Then, a custom risk estimation algorithm would calculate the risk of each hazard based on its placement relative to human-walkable surfaces.
“High-risk hazards, such as a pipe snaking across an elevated walkway, can be highlighted in an interactive inspection report and demand action from the relevant shift supervisor. Over that year, I spent weeks playing with the robot, seeing what it could do (and couldn’t!),” he explains.
His road to completing his Master’s degree was not without obstacles. Trevali Mining Corporation funded his research project, and the company faced a crisis when eight miners were tragically killed at their Burkina Faso mine in April 2022.
“By mid-September, my supervisor Prof Thinus Booysen saw the writing on the wall and told me to write up whatever I had and hand it in at the start of November. By grace alone, I had accomplished a lot by that time and had a collection of real data from the robot captured at Trevali’s mine in Rosh Pinah, Namibia. So, I slashed my project’s scope in half and finalised the implementation of my algorithms to write up my thesis,” he recalls.
What followed was six gruelling weeks of writing two to six pages of final draft material daily, but he rose to the occasion. “Trevali called soon after to confirm they were closing their doors and cheered me on to present what I had done as a complete master’s project. I finished and handed in on the evening of 1 November (2022).”
Dominic said Prof Booysen caught his attention while approaching Electrical and Electronic Department lecturers looking for bursary opportunities. “He happened to have a connection to Trevali and could offer me an attractive bursary. Trevali suggested the research topic after I signed on to conduct research for the company.”
He advises future engineering students to approach their degrees with a disciplined work ethic. “Part of that ethic for myself was choosing not to work after 5 pm on a weekday, nor to work over weekends. That required me to work diligently during my 8-to-5 workdays.”
He adds: “A master’s project is very self-directed, so learn to lead yourself when you don’t know what to work on next. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to. Stay healthy and do something active before or after work. Have fun and have a life outside of work.”
On the next steps in his career, he says: “I hope to use my potential and skill set to change the world somehow – to work at a career that has a real consequence in the lives of others. I hope never to stop learning and growing at what I’m good at. I hope to challenge and inspire others to make the best out of what they’re given.”
– Dominic Roux is seen configuring Spot®, the robotic dog created by Boston Dynamics, in preparation for performing inspections at a mining facility.
[Article by Amber Viviers]