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Data Collection and Rock Mass Classification

D. Milne

University of Saskatchewan

ABSTRACT: At some mines and among some consulting companies, there is a tendency for data collection to
focus on obtaining data for a rock classification system. Since some classification systems focus on particular
rock mass conditions and failure modes, this can lead to the loss of important field data that may be crucial for
reliable design. Also, some classification systems focus on the collection of general observations that do not
require rigorous data collection programs. If rock classification systems and design methodologies do not apply
detailed field data, this data will soon no longer be collected. This paper highlights problems that can arise
when data collection is too focused on obtaining values for rock classification. Approaches that can help the
engineer get the best possible information from available field data are also highlighted.
Data collection for mining applications can be broken
into two main sources. Geotechnical mapping (surface and/or underground and core logging) and geological (surface and/or underground and core logging). These broad categories can of course be
broken into smaller categories with other available
data sources of information, such as laboratory testing
data and geophysical field data.
The degree of detail collected and the type of data
collected is often influenced by the rock mass classification preferred by the site rock mechanics engineers or consultants. Problems with classification focused data collection and approaches to get improved
data for design are discussed.
Geotechnical data gathering is directed towards obtaining data on intact rock properties, the geometry of
the intact blocks and the properties of the discontinuities bounding the intact block. Added to this are
groundwater conditions and stress related information. To obtain the geotechnical data, line mapping is often conducted and provides some of the
most valuable geotechnical data. In areas where access for personnel is difficult or impossible, geotechnical data from core is often collected.
2.1 Geotechnical mapping and core logging data
Geotechnical mapping or line mapping predates modern rock classification techniques that have been in

use since the early 1970s. The data that was felt to
influence rock mass behaviour was collected (Piteau,
1973). Geotechnical core logging methods were also
developed before modern rock classification techniques. Collected data from core logging and line
mapping was collected for several purposes:
2.1.1 Delineating structural domains
Structural domains are areas where similar rock mass
properties could be expected. This data can come
from both geotechnical mapping and core logging.
Estimating structural domains is a requirement of all
classification systems. Data collected to assist with
the delineation of domains include:
Rock type
Faulting and shearing
Orientation of structure for delineating joint
2.1.2 Estimating intact rock strength
Intact rock strength would be estimated based on
hammer tests (R1 to R5 rating), schmidt hammer tests
or more precise lab testing methods.
2.1.3 Intact block geometry
Data for estimating intact block geometry comes from
several sources including:
Orientation of structure for delineating joint
Spacing of joints
Rock Quality Designation (RQD)
Length of discontinuities

Ends visible on discontinuities (this is a measure of continuity)

2.1.4. Discontinuity properties

Joint surface properties are assessed in some detail
from both geotechnical mapping and core logging
(Piteau, 1973). Data collected includes:
Evidence of groundwater
Planarity and openness cannot be assessed from
core logging. Evidence of past groundwater
may be observed in core as rust staining.

otechnical mapping can quantify the measurement of discontinuity apertures with

crack meters, as shown in Figure 2.
JRC values can be estimated at scales of
roughness (10 cm.) and planarity (1.0 m).
This can be done using a profile comb and
a folding rule (Figure 3 and 4). This data
can also be collected using Lidar (Figure
5). With this approach the data can be assessed at many scales and presented graphically, as shown in Figure 6.

2.2 Improvements in data gathering techniques

Many of the measurements taken for geotechnical
mapping and core logging were based on observations and subjective estimates of properties like
roughness and openness. More analytical techniques
have been developed to allow for the collection of
more repeatable and objective estimates, especially in
the area of intact block geometry and the properties
of discontinuities.
Figure 1. Block size distribution (Milne et al., 1991)

2.2.1 Intact block property

Intact block geometry can be approximated from line
mapping data based on average joint orientations and
spacings. RQD can be estimated from the same line
mapping data using equation 1 (Palmstrom, 1982):
RQD = 115 3.3 Jv
Eq. 1.
Jv = number of joints in a cubic metre
RQD can also be estimated from core logging, however, block geometry requires more information than
is available from standard core logging.
Lidar is a useful tool to assist in delineating joint
sets as well as estimating joint length, spacing and
continuity. Estimates of RQD can also be obtained
from the data. With additional analysis and some assumptions on joint continuity, block size distributions
can be developed (Figure 1). Standard core logging
can be augmented with down the hole optical and
acoustic televiewers. They can also provide data on
joint orientation and improved estimates of joint spacing and aperture or openness.
2.2.2 Discontinuity properties
The description of most properties of discontinuities mentioned in Section 2.1.4 have progressed from
subjective descriptions to repeatable measurements.
Openness or aperture can be measured
from boreholes using televiewers. Ge-

Figure 2. Crack meter for measuring discontinuity aperture.

These are made in engineering shops at the University of Saskatchewan.

Figure 3. Carpenters comb or profile comb for obtaining discontinuity roughness (Capes, 2012).

Figure 4. Measurement of joint amplitude for assessing planarity using a folding rule and ruler.
Figure 6. Joint profile length versus amplitude for estimating
roughness and planarity (After Bandis, 1980)


The more commonly used rock mass characterization
systems in North America would include the Q,
RMR76 and the GSI systems. The prime () designation refers to rock mass characterization where the
loading and environmental factors of stress and joint
orientation with respect to the excavation are assessed
separately. In each of these classification systems,
different data at different levels or detail are used. For
geotechnical data collection programs which are focused on obtaining data for rock classification systems, data that isnt required will likely not be collected.
3.1 Q Rock Characterization
The Q system (Barton et al., 1974) is perhaps the
most rigorous of the commonly used systems and is
based on the following equation:
Figure 5. Joint trace from Lidar mapping, suitable for JRC assessment (Fekete, 2010)

Equation 2

Where, SRF is set to 1.0

The terms in the equation are designed to reflect
the key rock mass properties that influence rock mass

behaviour. The SRF term is set to one as it is a measure of loading condition on the rock mass, which can
vary significantly in a mining environment.
RQD/Jn is designed to intact block size. Jn would
require an estimate of joint sets from mapping, or oriented core. RQD would be obtained from core or
from an estimate of the number of joints in a cubic
metre (Equation 1). From Equation 1 it should be
noted the RQD is insensitive to joint spacing in excess
of 1 metre. Data on joint continuity, length, ends visible or block size distribution would have little influence on this term. Data on the shape of intact blocks
or the intact block size distribution would not influence the estimation of Q.
Jr/Ja is a measure of the frictional properties of discontinuities. This term benefits significantly from the
more analytical approaches for estimating Jr at both
the 10cm and 1m scales (Milne et al., 1991). More in
depth data on joint roughness using 3-D joint surface
scans is of interest, but has not been related to the Jr/Ja
estimation. Methods to quantify the estimation of Ja
have been proposed, but reliable, easily used techniques are not in current practice.
Jw is a measure of water inflow and pressure and
is linked to detailed descriptions and measures of water pressure. Added quantifiable measurements are
not needed to improve the estimation of this parameter for common mining applications.
3.2 RMR76 Characterization System
The RMR76 system, as developed by Bieniawski
(1976) assesses many of the same factors as the Q
Block size is assessed with both RQD and a joint
spacing term. The joint spacing term increases the
systems sensitivity to very close and very wide joint
spacings, as compared to RQD/Jn for the Q system.
The RMR76 system, however, does not consider the
number of joint sets present. As with the Q system,
geotechnical core logging or basic geotechnical mapping would provide all required data concerning
block size. As with the Q system, added data beyond
RQD and average spacing would not influence the
calculation of RMR76.
Discontinuity frictional properties are assessed in
five categories based on a general description that
combines joint alteration and infilling thickness with
general surface roughness. The five categories are
each controlled by a single property which are, in order of descending discontinuity strength:
1. Not continuous joints (25 points)
2. Hard joint wall rock (20 points)
3. Soft joint wall rock (12 points)
4. Gouge, 1 5mm thick (6 points)
5. Soft gouge > 5mm thick (0 points)
A general observation of the rock mass condition
coupled with limited geotechnical mapping is all that

is required to obtain a good estimate of these properties. Detailed joint roughness surveys would not improve the estimation of this parameter. RMR89 has a
more detailed description of discontinuity strength
that more rigorous data collection could be applied to.
Unfortunately there are few empirical mining applications for RMR89.
The RMR76 system has a rating for the unconfined
compressive strength of the rock. The strength ranges
are broad, however, a sliding scale to relate the rock
strength to a classification weighting value could be
created, as was done in the RMR89 system
(Bieniawski, 1989). Added data is not needed to estimate this value.
As in the Q system, the water term is linked to a
measure of water inflow along a 10 metre length of
tunnel. Added quantifiable measurements are not
needed to improve the estimation of this parameter
for common mining applications.
3.3 GSI (Geological Strength Index)
The GSI (Geological Strength Index) is based on two
descriptors for the rock mass. The discontinuity surface condition assessment is a simplistic version of
the RMR joint descriptions. The GSI system, however, does not mention joint continuity as a factor and
avoids the use of any measurements, such as infilling
thickness. The second descriptor considers the general condition of the joint sets and the shape of the
intact blocks bounded by joints. It is interesting to
note that there is no measure of rock strength, ground
water conditions, joint spacing, RQD or any mention
of the scale of the intact blocks bounded by joints.
Several authors have added other terms or scales to
the GSI system which have included as assessment of
joint spacing or block size. Most recently, Hoek et
al., (2013) suggested the two descriptors for GSI
could be replaced by RQD and the 1989 RMR rating
for discontinuity condition. Whichever approach is
used for estimating GSI, general observations coupled with limited geotechnical mapping would provide a satisfactory approximation. Added geotechnical data gathering would not improve this
approximation and a precise estimate of GSI has been
discouraged (Marinos et al., 2007).
Each of the classification / characterization systems
discussed are used in mining because they are linked
to design tools that have been found to be of value for
mines. Mines and consultants often collect geotechnical data with the goal of obtaining input parameters
for a specific classification system. If the engineer
wants to use a design tool based on a different classification system, equations linking classification systems are often used. One of the more commonly used

equations linking RMR76 to Q is equation 3

(Bieniawski, 1976).
9 ln


(Equation 3)

It is interesting to consider the graph this equation

is based upon (Figure 7). As discussed in Section 3,
the different classification systems consider different
rock mass properties at different levels of detail to estimate classification values. For a Q of approximately
5, the plotted RMR values range from almost 20 to
80, with a calculated value of 58. None of the values
plotted can be considered incorrect, however, where
the case histories plot on the graph reveals properties
of the rock mass not explicitly indicated by the graph.
Points which plot below the 9lnQ + 44 line have RMR
values lower than indicated by the Q classification
value. This indicates the following information about
the rock mass:
The intact rock strength will tend to be low
(lowering RMR independent of Q)
The rock will tend to have few joint sets (Increasing Q independent of RMR)
The jointing will tend to be unfavourably oriented (lowering RMR independent of Q)
Points above the 9lnQ + 44 line will tend to have
the opposite properties. The commonly used relationship between RMR and Q is a reasonable average correlation, but for assessing individual case histories, it should be used with caution when no other
options exist.
Another correlation commonly used states that
GSI equals RMR76. To use this correlation, the
ground water factor should be set to 10 and the joint
orientation factor should be set to 0. It is difficult to
assess the validity of this correlation because while

RMR76 assesses RQD, joint spacing and intact rock

strength, GSI in its original form considered none of
these parameters.
Obtaining one classification system from another
system based on an equation linking the systems is
not a reliable approach. A more rigorous approach is
to link classification parameters between systems,
highlighting when assumptions or estimations are required. Figure 8 shows an approach for linking both
RQD and joint spacing values to joints per cubic metre (Jv) for an assumed 3 joint sets. If the number of
joint sets are not known, assumptions can be made
and the need for further site investigation should be
emphasised. If this data has not been collected, RQD
and spacing can be linked with the following equation
from Priest and Hudson (1976).


Equation 4

Figure 9 shows a correlation between the Ja and Jr

assessments in the Q system compared to the RMR76
Joint Condition assessment. The Ja assessment compares quite well to the hard and soft joint wall descriptions. The 1-5mm infilling and greater than 5mm infilling descriptions in the RMR76 descriptions provide
only a wide range in possible Ja values. The same
difficulty exists for estimating Jr values from RMR76
joint descriptions, a range of Jr values can exist for
the joint description categories. This approach highlights the uncertainty when trying to switch from one
classification system to another and shows the engineer what data is incomplete for assessing the rock

Figure 8. Linking Jv (joints/m3) to joint spacing and RQD (Forster, 2013).

Figure 7. Data relating Q and RMR (After Bieniawski, 1989)

(From Hutchinson and Diederichs, 1996).


Figure 9. Linking joint descriptions between Q and RMR76 classification systems (Forster, 2013).


One of the major challenges in rock mechanics is how
we account for scale. The RMR76 and Q classification systems are sensitive to joint spacings varying
between 3cm and 20 cm, which corresponds to an
RQD from about 15% to 90%. Closer joint spacings
will not reduce the RMR76 value, but the Q value will
drop by 33%. If the joint spacing increases from
20cm to 2m, Q will increases by about 10% and
RMR76 will increase by about 20, which is a significant increase for a system with a total range from 8 to
100. Intuitively, the stability of an opening will be
sensitive to changes in discontinuity spacings relative
to the size of the opening. The stability of a 10cm
diameter drill hole will be most sensitive to a change
in discontinuity spacing from fractions of a millimeter
to centimetres. The behaviour of a 10 metre diameter
tunnel will vary the most in the spacing range the classification system is most sensitive to; between a few
centimetres to a couple of metres.
Rock classification systems were developed in the
early 1970s, primarily to assist in the design of support for tunnels. The classification systems are most
sensitive to the range of discontinuity spacings most
critical to tunnel design. When used for other purposes or outside the scale they were designed for,
such as open stoping situations, care must be taken.
Based on the range in sensitivity highlighted between
RMR76 and Q, it seems the RMR76 system may be
more appropriate for large open stopes. It is interesting to note that the GSI system, in its original form,
avoided the problem of scale by basing the system on
scale independent subjective descriptions. This also
suggests that the GSI system is best used in situations
where joint spacing is not critical to design.

Better data collection techniques are available, but the

data is often not collected because it cant be used
with our common empirical design methods. The design methods havent been adapted to consider better
input data because the data isnt commonly available.
Bieniawski (1989) suggested that one of the main
benefits of rock mass classification was improving
the quality of site investigations by calling for the
minimum input data as a classification parameter.
Unfortunately, data requirements for rock mass classification are becoming the data collection goal or
standard in many operations. Instead of ensuring a
minimum level of data is collected, classification systems are hindering the collection of more detailed
data concerning the rock mass. Empirical design
techniques need to accommodate more detailed site
investigation data, hopefully, the collection and analysis of more detailed information will highlight its
value in the mine design process.
It is very important to realize what factors rock
classification and empirical design methods are not
assessing. GSI does not consider water effects, the engineer should ensure water is taken into account later
in the design process if this system is used. The
RMR76 system is not sensitive to discontinuity roughness. The Q system has limited sensitivity to joint
spacings greater than 0.5 metres.
Linking classification systems is interesting, can
give added information, but should be used with caution, and as a last resort. Data collection programs
should be focused on collecting data on the rock
mass, not filling in blanks in a rock classification
We could make some advances in rock mass classification and empirical design if we did not think of
the rock mass as a single number. An RMR76 of 65
could describe a strong rock with widely spaced joints
with significant joint infilling or a weak rock with soft
joint wall rock and relative close joint spacing. Intuitively these two rock masses would not behave the
same under all conditions. Empirical design charts
need to start considering individual rock mass properties.
Bandis, S. 1980. Experimental studies of scale effects
on shear strength and deformation of rock joints.
Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leeds, England, 385pp.
Fekete, S., Diederichs, M., Lato, M., 2010, Geotechnical and operational applications for 3-dimensional laser scanning in drill and blast tunnels, in
Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology,
vol. 25, pp. 614-625.

Forster, K., 2013. Inferred Weak Rock Mass Classification for Stope Design, MSc Thesis, University
of Saskatchewan, Canada, 194p.
Marinos, P., Marinos, V and Hoek, E., 2007. The Geological Strength Index (GSI): A Characterization
Tool for Assessing Engineering Properties for Rock
Masses, Proceedings of the International Workshop
on Rock Mass Classification in Underground Mining, Information Circular 9498 (NIOSH), Vancouver, B.C., Canada, May 31.
Milne, D., Germain, P., Grant, D., and Noble, P.
1991. Field observations for the standardization of
the NGI classification system for underground mine
design, Proc. Of the 7th Congress of the ISRM, Aachen, Rotterdam, Netherlands: Balkema.
Palmstrom, A., 1982. The volumetric joint count a
useful and simple measure of the degree of rock
jointing. Proc. 4th Int. Congress Int. ass. Engng.,
Geol. Delphi 5, 221-228.
Piteau, D.R., 1973. Characterizing and Extrapolating
Rock Joint Properties in Engineering Practice, Rock
Mechanics, Suppl. 2 pp 5-31. Springer-Verlag,
Wein, New York.