Over the years, technology has changed mining for the better in many ways. Perhaps the greatest advancements have been in the area of safety. What was once thousands of deaths per year a century or so ago has been reduced to less than a hundred in modern mining operations. However, new advancements in mining automation technology could take that number even lower.
In addition to making mining safer for those involved, automation will allow mine operators to move resources out of their mines more quickly and efficiently, with greater oversight of the process than ever before. Given the undeniable benefits that automation can bring to the industry, it’s no surprise that the mining automation market is expected to hit $3.29 billion in revenue by next year.
Automated Mining Technologies
In many ways, mining is behind the curve in adopted automation systems. Many industries have already completed their digital transformations, streamlining processes with the aid of software powered by artificial intelligence algorithms that can spot patterns much faster than their human counterparts and use that data to make predictions no human could hope to calculate. These powerful software tools work seamlessly with devices connected to the internet or other wireless technologies to have machines perform jobs normally reserved for humans. They also perform with a precision far beyond what their human operators could have achieved alone.
Several major operations, with the help of some big companies, are taking the first steps to bring that sort of innovation to the mining industry. Let’s take a look at some of the technology currently being used and discuss where things may be heading. Then we’ll look at some of the obstacles that the industry will need to overcome to reach fully automated mining.
Mining trucks are enormous. Unbound by the constraints of the highway, these behemoth machines are the size of a small house. Traditionally, human operators drove these massive mineral carriers. But one company, Rio Tinto, has 73 of them running entirely without a human on board. These are similar to the self-driving vehicles that are undergoing testing on our highway system, except much larger.
Because they only share the road with other automated vehicles, the complication of putting them to work is relatively small. However, as the technology improves and the safety level is thoroughly assessed, driverless trucks could also be used to haul mined materials across the country on public highways, as well.
At one of Rio Tinto’s mines, the automated trucks also work in conjunction with robotic drilling rigs. The company plans to take things a step further, upgrading their locomotives to operate themselves and use automated machinery for loading and unloading. When the technology has thoroughly proven itself, Rio Tinto wants to upgrade all of its mines with the same mining automation technology.
But Rio Tinto isn’t the only company operating such machinery. Canada’s largest oil company, Suncor, and BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, have also begun rolling out their own automated trucks and drilling rigs. The driverless machines are around 15% cheaper for the mines to operate than their human-powered equivalents.
Randgold Resources has taken mining automation even further. Their entire Kibali gold mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo is automated. Employees control the equipment from the safety and comfort of automated cubicles. By removing humans from the most dangerous jobs, the company achieved a 29% improvement in their injury rate. In addition, mining automation has made their Kibali and Loulo mines two of the world’s top ten most productive gold mines.
Software is a huge part of what makes automation in other industries so effective. Dozens of machines all communicate with one another through powerful software tools that coordinate their efforts in the most efficient way possible. Barrick Gold Corp. has teamed up with tech giant Cisco to create just such a system for their gold mines.
The team-up with Cisco hopes to turn the company’s Elko, Nevada, operation into a model for what all of its mines will become. To realize that goal, Barrick has created an in-house coding hub to design the software for its systems. Developing the software in-house allows the company to adapt quickly to any changes needed and save money on licensing costs.
Currently, the software developed by Barrick is:
- Helping miners adjust mine plans
- Monitoring the health of their truck fleet
- Serving as a nerve center of the operation dubbed the Analytics and Unified Operations Center
Unit costs per ton of rock have already dropped from $190 to $140 for the mine. The company expects even more drastic drops as its efforts expand.
Exploration is another critical aspect of the mining industry, and Barrick’s team is also on that. The company hopes to develop artificial intelligence applications that will unlock deposits beyond the gold space and allow the company to take the lead in other mining industries, as well.
Mining company Boliden has transformed one of the oldest operational mines into one of the most advanced. Their Garpenberg zinc mine has been providing metal to manufacturers since the 13th century. The mine now operates with the help of robotic equipment that feeds massive amounts of data to a number-crunching computer. The software processes that data and provides insights to operators that would be impossible for humans to calculate fast enough. Consultancy firm McKinsey believes that the mining industry using data in this way could benefit it and its stakeholders by up to $373 billion by 2025.
Tech firm DAQRI has created another tool for mining companies to make use of big data. Their augmented reality helmets project important information to mine workers. This can include:
- Instructions on how to repair mining equipment
- Data about the mine and its layout
- Thermal imagery
- And more
In order to work seamlessly, equipment collaborating in an automated system needs to be able to communicate with the control software that serves as the central nervous system for the operation. It also needs to communicate with any human operators who are on the job at a safer location. In many industries, this is as simple as using the local area Wi-Fi network or low-energy Bluetooth connectivity.
In mines, however, the problem is more complicated. Mines often cover expansive areas that aren’t friendly to wireless signals such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Both the range required and the penetration into thick rock greatly reduce these technologies’ efficacy. To solve the problem of letting mining equipment communicate, Ericsson has teamed with Boliden to develop a 5G deployment to facilitate communications at their automated mines.
By intelligently installing the 5G network throughout the mine, Ericsson and Boliden can provide connectivity to all areas that need it — while still meeting the bandwidth and low latency requirements of such a large-scale mining automation operation.
Challenges Going Forward
We can see progress in a few select mines. But the mining industry as a whole has yet to see widespread adoption of this new automated workflow. Even the companies taking an aggressive approach to the technology are still trying it out in pilot programs before extending it to their entire mining operation.
Like any radical transformation of the way an industry works, there will be some challenges that need to be worked out before automation can be something that we see in every mine. Given the increases in both productivity and employee safety, addressing these issues will be a priority for every major player.
The early stages of any new technology often have compatibility issues. As innovators rush to bring new and exciting technologies to market, they each develop their own protocols to make that happen. However, for mining companies to make widespread use of these technologies, they need to know that all of their equipment will be able to communicate with each other regardless of who the supplier is.
Barrick has largely sidestepped this issue by creating its own in-house software development team. But that isn’t a practical solution for every mining operation. Eventually, the market will demand (and reward) standardization and interoperability. But for that to happen, the use of this technology needs to become more mainstream.
Another issue companies will have to address is the concerns over lost jobs. An estimate says that mining automation can displace up to 50% of mining jobs. This is a frequent concern with automation, though, and has been repeated since the days of the industrial revolution. Ericsson’s research director, Torbjörn Lundahl, points out how many jobs are added due to a switch to high-tech workflows. He says, “Research from the US actually says that for every high-tech job that is created, you are creating five other jobs outside of tech, in different types of support services or other services needed in society.”
In addition, many of the jobs lost in the mining field are dangerous jobs that cost many lives every year.
Final Thoughts on Mining Automation
Eventually, the operation of mines will follow the same path that nearly every industry has. Automation is coming to mainstream mining operations all around the world. The technology is currently in its infancy, and companies will have to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Initially, this will happen at the individual level, with each of the innovators leading their own experiences. As the technology expands, however, the industry as a whole will be able to better learn from the experiences of its partners and rivals.