Mining is undergoing a fundamental and permanent shift. Advanced technology has begun to permeate mining operations, and this trend is only going to accelerate.
The shift is driven by clear needs within the industry, primarily the need to improve safety and reduce risk. Alongside this reduction in risk, technology serves to enhance productivity and efficiency. The ability of miners to enhance safety and productivity relies to a significant extent on one quality: knowledge.
Knowledge is safety
Knowledge – of environments, of risk, and of humans’ relationship to risk – has always been a precious commodity in the industry. The expression “canary in a coal mine” originates from an early and rudimentary form of air-quality measurement technology. Canaries, which are more sensitive to dangerous gases than humans, would be carried into mines. If the canary passed out or died it was an indication that humans, too, were inhaling dangerous gases, and should leave the area immediately.
Mining remains an exceptionally dangerous activity. Large machinery, massive weights, high energies and often remote operations pose a vast array of potential threats. The more information we have about mining environments, operations, equipment and risk, the more safely and productively we can work. In a high-consequence area such as a mine-site, knowing exactly where your people, vehicles, equipment and zones of danger are, and their condition, allows you to effectively manage risk and consequence.
We have come a long way from carrying a bird in a cage down a mineshaft. Today we can closely monitor the position and relationship between hundreds of pieces of equipment, thousands of humans, and various zones of risk or potential danger. People are equipped with wearables – smart watches, tags, or backpacks – which broadcast their location, monitor them for signs of danger, fatigue or injury, and allow them to instantly request assistance.
Vehicles are equipped with collision avoidance systems that instantly broadcast an alert if they are likely to cross paths with or come too close to people or objects. Mine zones are equipped with multi-modal sensors that analyse atmospheric chemicals, noise and potential energy, for example, in order to constantly update risks and threats. Sensors also allow for surveillance and the reduction in theft.
We saw the potential of these systems during the coronavirus pandemic, when wearable tags allowed mines to implement systems for contact tracing that were more effective than simple temperature screenings, for example, because they didn’t depend on infected people displaying symptoms. Wearable systems also allow employees to rapidly alert supervisors if they are harassed or threatened by other employees, as well as if they are in danger.
We are rapidly approaching the ultimate goal of operational planning in which every variable with a potential effect on safety and productivity – and their relationships – are analysable in real time.
It all begins with connectivity
None of this would have been possible without breakthroughs in the reliability and effectiveness of connectivity on mining sites. Mining often takes place in remote areas, in the midst of inhospitable terrain. Mining sites are characterised by noise, dust, extremes in temperature, extreme weather events, magnetic fields, and direct lines of sight obscured by millions of tonnes of rock and ore. On top of this, it’s not sufficient for connectivity to work under these conditions sometimes. A second’s delay in the transmission of a signal can mean the difference between life and death.
Advances in connectivity (born in some instances from military and first-responder applications) have incorporated both specific technologies – mesh technology; LoRaWAn protocols; global positioning systems; BlueTooth location engines; etc. – and interprotocol communication that allows these technologies to interact with and support one another to create an unbroken, robust connectivity network that extends across the entire zone of operations, including deep underground.
Once we have dependable, effective connectivity established, the next step is to generate useable data. Sensors can monitor dust, noise or CO2 levels, for example. Cameras and microphones can transmit visual and auditory data. Heart rate monitors can transmit data on human health.
But the power of data begins to emerge when it is analysed in real-time by advanced software. Machine learning and AIs can examine data and begin to make predictions about the future. Microphones installed on conveyor belts can identify bearings that are due to be replaced. Slope-monitoring systems can generate alerts if slopes appear unstable. And human-wearable sensors can identify fatigue before it creates safety issues.
The future of technology in mining will be driven by AIs, allowing for ever quicker and more sophisticated data analysis, and an ever-increasing ability to accurately model likely future scenarios.
AIs will also allow robotics to become more autonomous, reducing the oversight role that humans will need to play. We are still many years, if not decades, away from truly autonomous robots in mines, but even robots that are dependent on human controllers have obvious applications in terms of examining dangerous areas or performing dangerous tasks, and are being rapidly adopted throughout the industry.
The evolving human role
Robots are not about to put people out of work, but the nature of work in mining will inevitably change. Technology will reduce human exposure to risk. Dangerous, unpleasant, or unhealthy work will increasingly be done by controlled or autonomous systems. People will increasingly take on supervisory roles. This will require attention from miners in terms of training and talent management. The result will be that humans will be engaged in more stimulating, rewarding and healthier work.
Since the earliest days of mining, an overriding question has been “how do we ensure the safety of people within these exceptional, high-risk environments”? The answer has proven to be real-time knowledge, underpinned by robust connectivity and analysed by intelligent software systems. It’s a tremendously exciting area of technological development, and it has tangible benefits for mining companies and their stakeholders. The result is a mine that serves its employees, reduces risk, and enhances productivity.