How the Mining industry got tech smart

From aluminium, copper and titanium to diamonds, gold and platinum, many of our planet’s natural resources are used by the technology industry to power the digital world and create the latest must-have smartphones and wearable devices. But the real jewel in the crown for the mining industry is the way it’s quickly embracing smart technology.

The mining industry’s IT revolution is based on the premise that recovering the planet’s natural resources can be dirty, dangerous and environmentally damaging. For mining concessions faced with massive capital investments, operating at maximum efficiency is critical to turning a profit.

Cue some of the most talked about technological innovations of our age; big data, autonomous machinery, artificial intelligence, geofencing, the Internet of Things and super-fast data networks. What do these innovations have in common? They are all joined up in the cloud, where massive computing power can be pointed at complex problems from afar. This is the smart mine.

The first step is often to create basic 3G. 4G or so-called ‘extreme WiFi’ networks over large, remote areas to allow basic communications, but if the mining industry’s dream of autonomous haulage can become a mainstream reality, much higher bandwidth will be critical.

There are dozens of trials going on already using cloud-powered fleet management software; an electric steering module is inserted between the steering wheel and valve on dumper trucks, which are thus controlled remotely to create centimetre-accuracy. Using real-time digital maps to navigate around an open mine, these massive trucks can identify an exact location for dumping, and they never break the speed limit. Other mine operators are planning autonomous long distance railways to get the minerals and ores from the remote mines to ports for export.

The same tech is also going underground, with projects investigating how to remotely control 30-ton wheel loaders using a a distributed radio network in the mine. The trick is to arrange the antenna to cope with the uneven walls of long underground tunnels in mines, though radio signals also get interrupted by passing vehicles. It’s all critical research for future 5G mobile networks, which will be fast enough to allow autonomous vehicles to exchange real-time data with cloud servers.

Mining operations are also beginning to move their core IT systems into the cloud; big data analytics is beginning to be being used to maximise bucket payloads and plan optimal dig patterns. The aim is maximum fuel and energy efficiency. This is big data on the biggest of scales.

However, these innovations in smart mining have potential safety consequences for the remaining employees, none of whom want to get into an argument with a 350-ton autonomous truck. Cue geo-fencing tech, a mesh network that communicates with wearable devices on miners to let them know that they’re about to enter an area where heavy machinery is at work. It works both ways, to; if a miner needs assistance, they can send a message to the control centre. It works in the same way with distributed microclimate monitoring devices, whose sensors measure humidity, sound, temperature and gas levels, and send the data over WiFi to a control centre. Staff are alerted as soon as they enter a suspect area.

So next time you hear someone talking about how the cloud can help revolutionise an industry, remember that compared to the mining industry – forecast to spend US$13 billion on smart mining infrastructure by 2020 – the rest of us are just scratching the surface.

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