Ask almost anyone, including people within the industry, and they’ll tell you that mining is not the most high tech of industries. There are many plausible arguments for this perception; one could argue that the process of digging, crushing and extracting minerals from rocks hasn’t changed much in the last two thousand years. Despite perceptions, there are some very interesting use cases, many of them cutting edge, that are driving digital transformation and advanced analytics.
VR & AR
Companies like LlamaZOO are already deploying virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to visualize and map out ore body deposits. In a case study developed in partnership with Teck Resources, LlamaZOO developed a VR replica of the British Columbian Galore Creek deposit, one of the largest undeveloped copper-gold-silver deposits in the world covering 30,000 square kilometers. Traditionally, 3D visualization tools for mining were limited to geological modeling software designed for geologists. But many other stakeholders, including local communities and regional governments responsible for site approval and licensing also benefit from intuitive visualization of these projects. Furthermore, the remote locations of these mining projects result in significant travel costs. In the case of this project, Teck employees were able to save over a quarter million dollars in travel. The potential here is huge, and many other companies are now developing similar tools.
Safety and training are also very important in the mining industry, leading to development of AR and VR applications that bring more realistic training scenarios to mine workers. NORCAT, a company focused on skills training for the mining industry has already developed a comprehensive library of VR and AR tools to practice specific scenarios, such as scaling rock in an underground mine, equipment training, safety hazard detection and more.
The application of digital twinning to simulate operating conditions, predict equipment failure and identify inefficiencies provides a powerful business case for mining operators around the world. Two of the three finalists in Goldcorp’s DisruptMining competition proposed digital twin solutions, including Voith’s BeltGenius system that creates a complete digital model of massive conveyor systems to monitor and improve energy efficiency.
Given the complex and energy-intensive nature of the mineral extraction process there are many opportunities for optimization. In many cases, mines are looking to model out specific machines. More and more however, companies are looking to model out entire sections of their operations including blasting, milling and grinding, and flotation, incorporating these processes into sophisticated models.
Drones & Automation
Mining exploration often takes place in remote locations, with difficult terrains. These remote locations often lack basic infrastructure such as permanent roads. Furthermore, fully developed mines can be vast in scope, making on-site inspection a daunting task. Drone companies like Airobotics have developed integrated solutions to support inspection, surveying and security using unmanned aerial vehicles.
Similarly, autonomous trucks are becoming more prevalent in large scale mine sites, allowing for improvements in efficiency and most importantly safety. In Australia, Rio Tinto deploys autonomous trucks to move almost a quarter of tonnage for mines in the western Pilbara region. Combined with the upcoming electrification of mining fleets, one would be hard pressed to claim that mining is not deploying cutting-edge technology.
An industry focused on results
Mining, like most primary commodity industries exists in a world of boom and bust. Not surprisingly, there is a belief that insiders are risk-averse when it comes to new technology adoption. An alternate viewpoint is that seasoned mining teams might prudently take a more skeptical viewpoint to unproven technologies early in the technology hype cycle. Viewed from this perspective, and given the speed with which companies are already adopting the technologies mentioned in this article, perhaps we can argue that the mining industry is leading, not lagging in digital technology adoption.