Despite having literally thousands of years of practice, it seems humans’ mining abilities have been overtaken. In a connected and pandemic-ridden world, there is barely a sector not being revolutionised by technology. Mining tech can improve safety, security, production, and therefore profits, through optimised monitoring and integrated communications. These are all vitally needed with rising costs, declining efficiency, declining commodity quality, and volatile prices in the sector, as well as a widespread environmentalist attitude.
A combination of mining tech trends gives a vision of the future, one with optimised environmental and economic solutions, lower risks, and much safer working conditions. However, with only 10% of companies adopting these strategies, and only a 20% adoption rate of smart sensors predicted by 2025, is this mining revolution happening fast enough to allow the industry to survive?
Drones, whether seen as an annoyance or an amusement, are a common sight in our skies, and are increasingly being deployed within mines. Companies such as Skycatch use them to perform within cm-level precision 3D mapping for virtual reality, inventory management, hot spot identification and real-time data collection. This data can be used to assess the sustainability and outcomes of land regeneration, meaning drones have the scope to replace humans in exploring newly drilled, unstable mines in often remote locations.
Similarly, in intelligent mines, data collected by drones and elsewhere can be programmed into driverless, environmentally-friendly, electric Autonomous Haulage Systems (AHS). These reduce the risk to human life in difficult environments and save time by removing the necessity for shift change-overs and breaks. Many manufacturers are developing AHS, including Caterpillar’s zero-emission mine and Hitachi’s AHS which are used around the world. As well as vehicles, mining robots, such as those from Mining-ROX, are being developed to analyse rock samples and survey mines.
A fully autonomous workforce is perhaps set to be the future, with the only area still needing improvement being blasting. This currently uses tech to analyse sediment density, fluid penetration, mud seams, and fragmentation, but still requires explosives experts to painstakingly lay the wiring. Despite this chink in the armour, joint ventures, such as the combination of Komatsu’s electric haul trucks and Modular Mining’s IntelliMine fleet management, seem to be the start of a smart mine revolution.
Removing the human component in ‘smart’ mines through digital transformation can increase efficiency through computerised data collection and trend-spotting and the reduction of costly human errors. Digitalisation in mining is also embracing the use of digital twins to aid asset monitoring through their lifecycles. An accurate and real-time virtual copy of a sensed physical object or a process, they can utilise data from Fleet Management, Navigation, or Processing Plant Control systems, collected with AI, machine learning and software analytics. The outcome is a simulation of a whole mine and can be used to model the future conditions and output. This means companies can minimise asset risk and keep ahead of ever-evolving conditions by more effectively diagnosing areas of improvement.
Skycatch also has a digital twin program to holistically monitor Tailings Dams (mining storage), compared to the commonly utilised ground sensors. Skycatch generates continuous 3D measurements of volume, distance, height, slope, and surface area, at below 3cm accuracy. Geovia Surpac produces digital twins covering the entire mining process through modelling both urban and remote mining environments. They can also analyse the economic viability, quantity and extraction methods of a mineral deposit. Production of digital twins was once expensive, but the Internet of Things (IoT) is making digital twins a more affordable, and critical, reprogrammable part of mining’s future.
In such an unstable industry as mining, we need risk-minimising improvements, which require data. Humans just won’t cut it anymore, as they spend 30% of their time just searching for information, according to the International Data Corporation. Tech collects and analyses more data than humans ever could, increasingly automating and connecting mines.
Alongside planet-saving, electric machinery, data continuously and flexibly optimises systems, safeguarding our mines for the future. This future relies on widespread utilisation of tech, but new tech requires new training, as 74% of mining organisations agree in a Deloitte 2020 survey. Yet, only 9% of the same figure are ready and willing to address this issue. No matter how exceptional the technological advances may be, without acceptance by industry, surely mining has no chance of survival.
I'll certainly be keeping an eye on opportunities for companies as this space continues to develop and technologies adapt. Want to discuss the future of smart mining in some more detail with me? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on LinkedIn to chat!
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