Automation and the smart, connected mine

According to Berg Insight, connected mining solutions will reach 1.2 million units by 2023. The figure represents connected devices deployed on machines and vehicles used in mining operations, solutions ranging from OEM telematics systems on mining equipment to advanced connected solutions supplied by mining technology specialists, solutions deployed to support the safety and productivity of mining personnel, plus sensor technology implemented for environmental monitoring of the mine itself.

From my meetings with customers, it is not hard to see that the industry is looking for a more connected ecosystem of technologies; and that ecosystem is increasingly connected autonomously. We’re seeing edge devices capturing data and bringing it back to the office, where it is transformed into information for more-proactive decisions.

There’s no question that the digitalisation of mining operations can profoundly affect production, efficiency and safety. Some might call this a smart mine. But what exactly makes a mine smart? Is it a philosophy? Or a well-defined solution set?

Mining automation beyond haulage and drilling

The Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics and ultimately automation play a role in this shift toward more connected ecosystems. And by automation, I don’t just mean automated haulage or automated drilling. Automation goes all the way back to data acquired at the very beginning of the value chain and reconciled at the end: from geological modelling to the execution of tasks and operations. Many companies are starting to execute such data-management strategies, allowing them to access and gain more insight into their data.

In addition to obtaining more insight from data, companies also focus on ensuring that data is secure. Cybersecurity is an increasingly hot topic, especially as mines adopt semi-autonomous and autonomous solutions. Change management becomes important here as companies grapple with the challenge of embracing technology in operations and within organisations.

“How do we bring our employees on this journey,” is a question I’m increasingly asked. The answer lies in understanding social responsibility, so mines not only leverage technology but ensure they bring their staff along.

The keys to a smarter mine

The industry is witnessing a trend toward autonomous vehicles. Ensuring our equipment runs 24/7, 365 days a year — or as close as possible to that —enables us to get the most out of what can be expensive assets. This has implications for productivity and safety. Reducing human interaction in a mine site is a high priority for many companies striving to make their operations safer and more productive.

When we focus on automation, it is not just about vehicles being able to travel from A to B. In a smarter mine, those vehicles need to connect within the entire ecosystem of technologies. So within one feedback loop, from end to end, we can know how our scheduling affects our truck haulage, reconciliation and material flow.

We can then integrate other parts of the mining value chain within this process. For instance, a geotechnical monitoring system or radar system detects when we are about to experience a wall failure in a particular area of the pit. Within an autonomously connected ecosystem, that system must automatically connect to alert the trucks to evacuate the area.

The evolution of underground mining solutions

Technology companies have good reason to renew their focus on underground solutions. Minerals close to the surface are increasingly rare, and underground mines tend to have a smaller environmental footprint. We’re finding newer ways to extract minerals at the surface and underground. As we push underground, we will need to develop those technologies to suit different methodologies.

Block caving, for instance, has different technology needs and process needs compared to more-traditional methodologies. The biggest challenge we’ve always had is connectivity and the means to actually run technology underground. How do we transfer data back to the surface to make the right decisions? You can’t just step over the pit’s edge and see what is happening.

From automation to teleremotes and more-connected devices, recent innovation is helping mines locate their assets and understand what those assets are doing and when they’re doing it — ultimately helping companies get more from those assets.

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