Mining companies are shedding their image of dust and dynamite with new technologies intended to improve operational and financial performance, as well as safety.
These emerging technologies are set to change the way miners operate over the next decade and help them evolve with newer business models. Delivering improved productivity, cost savings, and safety advancements. Some of the new technologies include autonomous drilling, driver fatigue monitoring and collision awareness systems for mine vehicles and trucks.
Other technologies on the radar include drones, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, smart sensors and robotic process automation. Ed McCord, general manager of heavy machinery manufacturer Caterpillar’s Inc truck division, says,
“Zero injuries is the mantra of mining companies. A switch to autonomous mining equipment will have a tremendous influence on their achievement of that goal.”
The ever-popular buzz-phrase “internet of things” also figures heavily in the future of mining. Firms like Motorola and IBM are already working closely with mining firms in South Africa to improve network connectivity above and below ground, to allow for the deployment of remote sensors that can be used to monitor everything from levels of dangerous gases to more general activities such as the movement of minerals around a mine.
As precious resources become ever more difficult to access at depth, exploring technologies such as automation and even robotics to transform hard rock mining become ever more important.
Four years ago, Leigh Ann Booysen worked grueling shifts at Kumba Iron Ore’s Kolomela iron ore mine as a drill operator. That meant sitting on a truck-sized drilling machine in an iron ore pit for eight hours, drilling holes for explosives before blasting. Today, she proudly boasts to her family that she works an office job – and yet, she’s never drilled more, or better, holes in her life.
Leigh Ann is at the forefront of a technology revolution that is changing the face of Kumba’s operations – and indeed, the entire iron ore mining industry. She is now one of a team responsible for operating Kumba’s fleet of automated drilling machines from a safe, air-conditioned control centre next to the mine’s offices.
It’s not just the drill operators’ lives that have improved. The rise in productivity has been dramatic. Operating hours are up 20% (from 14 to 17 hours a day), the quality of the drill holes has improved, and fewer drilling machines will be needed over the lifetime of the mine..
The robotic drilling machines are part of a R500 million investment in technology by Kumba at its mines in the Northern Cape as part of its efforts to make mining safer, more productive and more environment-friendly. It’s literally cutting-edge technology, with Kumba being one of only two iron ore miners in the world to use autonomous drills.
“DRONES: Drone usage for mining has had to overcome some key challenges. Unsteady ground, falling rocks, and obstacles to spot and work around not only make it difficult and dangerous for a person to go down and chart a mine, but can also prevent most drones from working underground.”
The machines aren’t only taking over the drilling operations, though. The skies are also a lot busier over Kumba’s Kolomela and Sishen mines these days, with a fleet of 10 drones providing information on everything from where mining has taken place to current stockpiles.
Make no mistake, these are not the drones you find buzzing over your house or in the local park over weekends. Kumba has spent more than R6 million on its fleet, which includes both fixed-wing and quadcopter drones, fitted with state-of-the-art cameras and laser scanners, which are used to create three-dimensional images and surveys. They are operated by five staff members who have received specialised training as drone pilots and are fully licenced by the SA Civil Aviation Authority to do so.
The benefits have been immediate; the drones are quickly providing information and data on Kumba’s operations that used to take days, or even weeks, to accumulate. In many cases, they are delivering new data that wasn’t accessible before, and is allowing Kumba to operate far more efficiently than before.
Not all the technologies are as glamorous as robotic drills or drones – but they are no less effective in contributing to a modern mining operation. Kumba is particularly proud of its Advanced Process Control (APC) system, which in simple terms controls the flow of material through the processing plant, with fewer interruptions and better quality.
And then there’s the autonomous braking for Kumba’s haul trucks, which automatically bring the massive trucks to a stop to avoid collisions and accidents. More than 10 trucks have already been fitted with the new braking system.
The best part of the technology strategy, says Bongi Ntsoelengoe, Technology Manager at Kumba Iron Ore, is that not a single job has been lost in the process. “Rather than replacing employees, we have shown that using technology in our operations improves skills and provides an opportunity for staff to develop and grow. Better working conditions mean employees are excited and motivated about their work environment, which makes for a more productive, safer workplace,” says Ntsoelengoe.
Together with advances in data science, automated and remote systems will lead inevitably to a simpler, faster – and standardised – operation; an outcome that will move mining closer to reducing and better managing the huge variability that characterises the industry today, while generating safety and productivity gains.
In this world of rapid, powerful change, the world belongs to those who can redefine it and – in mining – today’s pioneers are tomorrow’s winners.
That’s why Anglo American has set out our innovation-led approach to sustainable mining – FutureSmart Mining™. It applies innovative thinking and technological advances to address mining’s major challenges.