Future of Underground Mining
The way we work is changing. Advanced technology tools are transforming how we collaborate, analyze, organize, and innovate. In almost every sector, tech advance is helping organizations be more productive, reduce time, save money, and work together better. The mining industry is no different.1
With increased competition, the pressure is on. Around the world, mining operators are facing the challenges of declining ore grades and operating efficiency. With the decreasing availability of tier-one assets and continued focus on shareholder returns, operators are looking towards digital tools and new ways of working to drive results.
The digital revolution can transform and automate the entire mining value chain from “pit to customer.” Advanced supply chain visualization tools can aggregate data from multi-systems to show near-real-time operations metrics. Drones can help with geotechnical monitoring and remotely conduct stockpile volumetric audits, or powerful laser scanners can build highly accurate 3D maps of underground mines in minutes.
The last decade has seen a rollercoaster of highs and lows in the mining sector, and the volatility is likely to continue.2 Digital tools are readily available that help mining decision-makers do the job better, faster, safer, and cost-effectively. However, there are still many businesses slow to embrace transformative practices. With change being a constant, forward- thinking mining operators need to embrace digital technology and drive innovation, or risk being left behind.
“As the mining industry's value proposition is increasingly called into question, mining companies are beginning to see that they cannot succeed in the future unless they change the way they operate.” —Glen Ives, Americas mining leader, Deloitte Canada
The Old Tools Are Blunt
Today's mining companies aren't short of choice when it comes to assessing ground-breaking technologies. From autonomous vehicles to automated drilling and tunnel boring systems, the decreasing cost of technology puts many of these innovations within reach. Even within the last few years, drone technology has taken off to the extent that easy-to-use aerial technology is now affordable — and millions of drones are sold each year.3
Digital technologies already employed or that will be employed in the next 3-5 years in mining operations:
- 54% - Robotics and automation (mobile and fixed assets)
- 41% - Drones/UAVs, wearables, and remote operating centers
- 39% - Virtual simulation of digital environment
- 38% - Real time analytics
- 37% - Advanced process control
- 37% - Image analytics
- 35% - Real time data visualization
How Spatial Data Visualization Is Rocking the Mining World
According to Anglo American, spatial data is being used more and more in the mining industry, with spatial data models and maps becoming more detailed and clearer than ever before. Today, we are seeing breakthroughs in three-dimensional (3D) modeling, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technology.1
3D modeling creates a viewable, life-like impression with depth perception that allows the human brain to understand and relate to complex interrelated issues. VR enables a user to test a piece of equipment without the risk of damage or cost. These new technologies allow us to design new mines more efficiently and make it possible to experience what it's like to work in a mine without being out in the field.
Yet to be truly successful, cutting-edge technology alone isn't enough. While digital solutions will empower employees to make better decisions, they will also cause upheaval as manual jobs are automated. Mining companies need to consider how to create new employment opportunities, and how to reskill and retrain people to learn technology and tools faster. They'll need to not only reach beyond traditional tools but importantly embrace the mindset and approach to collaborate.
“Technology is certainly not a silver bullet, but targeted in the right places, it will make mines even more safe, and our operations more efficient and cost-effective.” —Dr Caius Priscu, Head of Mineral Residue Facilities, Anglo American
Rio Tinto: Mine of the Future
A decade ago, Rio Tinto declared one of the most ambitious transformation programs in mining: plans for an intelligent mine packed with driverless trains, trucks and robotics. At the heart of the program is an operations center in Western Australia that today generates 2.4 terabytes of data every minute from hundreds of pieces of mobile equipment and sensors. Covering 16 individual mines, the one integrated center (which looks very similar to NASA's control center) is manned by operators over 930 miles (1,500km) from the physical sites.
The mining giant was also the first mining company to introduce fully autonomous haul trucks. But automation doesn't stop there: it also introduced automated drills in production drilling, which is safer for operators and more efficient, and is introducing robotic automation in its rail system — a train comprised of 244 cars stretching a total of 1.25 miles (2kms) driven by robots. Next stop, possibly a mine with no miners?
The Challenges in Discovering the World beneath Us
We've long been fascinated by the underground world of tunnels and caves, and with today's tech it may soon be possible that Google Maps™ goes underground. Yet aside from exploring the depths for knowledge, mine operators need to safely tap into and excavate the wealth of minerals beneath us. This comes with many challenges:
- Access Issues - Underground mapping is one of the most difficult and demanding forms of surveying with mining professionals needing to work in tight, enclosed spaces.
- Hazardous Sites - Mining sites are notoriously hazardous, despite the most rigorous safety checks. Companies strive for zero-harm targets yet the mapping process itself is risky.
- Pressure to Optimize - Tunnel construction and underground projects are time consuming and complex, and companies need to plan efficient site operations to optimize production cycles.
- Time Constraints - Mining professionals need to rapidly and accurately map underground environments under intense time pressure, yet traditional survey techniques can be lengthy.
Transforming Mapping in Mining Environments
Access to user-friendly technology that can quickly scan difficult-to-reach environments and produce accurate and high-quality 3D data can be a game-changer for mining operators. Leading the charge is 3D mobile mapping, which helps mine operators improve the way they dig up commodities as well as helping them cut costs, all without the need for GPS.
Using a handheld laser scanner operators can walk and scan, or attach the scanner to a trolley, drone, pole or mine vehicle for remote monitoring of hazardous environments. The scanner collects the data and SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) software turns it into actionable 3D information within minutes. With minimal training, operators can use it for rapid insight into rock mass behavior, to measure stockpile volumes or to map complex tunnel profiles. Robust enough to deal with extremely harsh environments, laser scanners help mine owners deliver productivity and efficiency improvements, at the same time as keeping operators safer.
“This technology allows us to quickly and easily view, compare and evaluate data to paint a picture of what's under the ground. It's like an ultrasound image of the deposit delivered in real time, something that we could never do before.” —John McGagh, Head of Innovation, Rio Tinto
What Exactly Is SLAM?
SLAM stands for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. SLAM devices take data from sensors to build a picture of the environment around them and where they are positioned within that environment. The complex SLAM computations and algorithms effectively construct or update a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of the device's location within it. Every few seconds, the scanner is comparing the data collected with the last few seconds and aligning familiar features together to create a very accurate point cloud.
Setting a New Standard for the Mining and Natural Resource Sector
Creating highly accurate maps of the underground world for the mining and natural resource industries is one of the most complex forms of surveying. Yet innovations in laser technology are transforming and simplifying the way we map the world beneath us and are being applied to a wide range of applications, including:
- Tunnel & Underground Mine
- Stockpile Volumes
- Convergence Analysis
- Shaft Inspection
- Production Progress Mapping
With powerful mobile mapping technology at their fingertips, mine operators have faster, safer and more efficient insight into rock mass behavior. This means they can better tailor their ground support regimes, monitor convergence and more efficiently target rehabilitation areas. Other benefits include:
- Rapid scanning: Operators can slash survey times with easy-to-use technology. Anyone on site can map accurate tunnel profiles, stockpile volumes, pits and caves in minutes.
- Go-anywhere mapping: You can use the technology in the trickiest, darkest and dampest of spaces, even where GPS isn't available. Walk with the handheld or attach it to a trolley, drone, robot or autonomous vehicle.
- Safety as a priority: You can safely scan underground, inaccessible and dangerous environments, even remote and hazardous areas.
- Save time and money: Data capture and modeling are up to 10x faster, allowing you to successfully complete projects in minimum time with little or no disruption.
The Future of Intelligent Mining
Tech advancements are already helping improve mine safety, remove waste and drive greater productivity. Mining companies are creating jobs that require artificial intelligence or automation-specific skills — from data scientists to automation engineers. Forward-thinking operators who foster innovation will remain competitive. While some mining companies may hesitate and deliberate choosing which technology is best for them to deploy, others are decisive and lead in the race for intelligent mine of the future.
The digital revolution is here — and it's going underground. With unmanned technology able to carry out open-pit operations, and complex software algorithms able to mine vast quantities of sensor data, the leap to a truly digital mine is within reach.