The Elements of Innovation Discovered

New mining tech enhances safety, ESG

Industry adopts automation, tech integration, green solutions Metal Tech News - May 1, 2023

The last few years have seen big industries' social accountability come to the fore, with growing pressure to engage more holistically with the workforce, local communities, and environmental concerns.

Evolving from this, a new business model of corporate performance has arrived in boardrooms, comprising a trifecta of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) responsibilities.

Keeping pace is the mining industry's collective push to be more sustainable and accountable, including the utilization of new technologies to minimize inefficiencies, overall costs, and risks to employees.

Savvy mining companies are pushing for improved hazard identification and safer, more secure work environments through automation and interconnectivity using equipment enhanced with sensors, processing ability and software that exchanges data over cloud-based communications networks.

Information and analytics company GlobalData has thoroughly outlined this new wave of advanced safety measures and protocols in its "Digging deeper into sustainability: key disruptive forces in mining."

"Technological progress has greatly improved the ability of mining companies to effectively address health and safety risks, surpassing the limitations of past approaches," said Rahul Kumar Singh, disruptive tech senior analyst at GlobalData. "[C]ompanies can not only proactively tackle frequent mining hazards but also attract top talent seeking a safe and innovative workplace."

Key influencers in the mining sector have made headlines by adopting alternate energy sources, enhanced management protocols and customized safety measures.

Adding mine connectivity, location-sensitive alarms, underground tracking systems, tunnel safety devices and advanced workforce monitoring, the new face of mining concerns is greener and highly modernized.

Leading in these new game-changing resources and services around the globe are companies like Sandvik, Epiroc and others.

Automation and electrification

Groundbreaking industry leaders like Rio Tinto, and Sumitomo Metal Mining, have accelerated their adoption of electrification and remotely controlled vehicles and equipment.

One of the earliest adopters of automated mining tech was Rio Tinto. In 2008, workers were trained to operate an autonomous mining fleet in Australia's remote Pilbara region from a Rio Tinto control center in Perth.

Another industry first was achieved by the Syama Gold Mine in Bali, which became the world's first fully autonomous underground mine in 2019, deploying automated drilling, loading, and haulage from Sandvik, a Swedish mining equipment and technologies company.

Industrial automation utilizes software and robotics to replace manual labor in dangerous or difficult functions, quality control, and materials handling processes.

In adding analytical tools and artificial intelligence (AI) to the mix, companies like Sandvik integrate equipment and training to improve worker experience and safety, while customized products leverage digital solution suites and automation to reduce operations costs, optimize productivity, and measure environmental impact.

Sandvik aims to have 60% of its customer base successfully running digitally integrated and automated equipment and management solutions by 2025. Throughout this year, the company has continued to develop Sandvik Automation Module (SAM), a digital assistant platform that enables operational insights to help mining partners improve productivity and performance.

With a full spread of product options from autonomous rock drilling and tunneling machines to mining inspection robots, fully automated mines are now within reach.

In the cloud

With the increasing number of modern monitoring devices generating vast amounts of data, cloud-enabled mines are better positioned to optimize safety, sustainability, and productivity, deriving actionable insights from what were previously disparate and physically corruptible systems.

Cloud-based technologies provide transparency, traceability, and exacting regulatory compliance while facilitating job relocation to remote operations centers. This also greatly expands the pool of potential personnel.

Cloud storage solutions are robust, cheaper, and more scalable than on-site equivalents, streamlining existing production and management functions. Additionally, environmental and health hazards can be mitigated by cloud-connected sensors which monitor environmental data and coordinate personnel and scheduling.

Industry leaders that have notably adopted cloud technologies in their mines include Anglo American, Teck Resources, Rio Tinto, Komatsu, BHP, and Resolute Mining, to name only a few.

Artificial intelligence

Machine learning and AI are productivity and maintenance tools that can foresee risks in the form of structural failures, hazardous gases and dust, and even employee fatigue. Management software and networks can coordinate evacuations, clean-up, etc., while AI-powered smart robotics increase efficiency, allow devices to perform more complicated and unstructured tasks and run predictive analytics.

In a recent collaboration, Sandvik jointly developed an analytics and predictive maintenance solution using IBM Watson IoT technology to prevent equipment breakdowns, mitigating productivity losses by 25% or more in cases.

Early warning systems

Workforce safety is a high priority for mining companies around the world, and new technologies are providing an array of sensors and early warning systems to keep miners out of harm's way.

"The mining industry's heightened focus on safety for workers and mines is evidenced by the rising number of patents for tunnel safety devices," said Singh. "By incorporating health and safety technologies, mining companies can not only enjoy benefits like attracting and retaining skilled workers and reducing maintenance expenses but also improve the early identification of potential hazards, thereby avoiding costly maintenance and repair work and generating substantial cost savings."

Tunnel safety systems identify risks and manage potential hazards such as fires, smoke, flooding, and various accidents. Additionally, location-sensitive alerts activated when a substance, person or object enters a predetermined geographic zone function as early warning systems.

In December 2022, Swedish government-owned mining company LKAB partnered with Epiroc to utilize the company's Mobilaris Mining Intelligence platform, allowing employees to receive and confirm alarm and crisis information on their mobile phones. Emergency situations can now be handled efficiently from a central location, with employee position support and easy navigation to rescue chambers.

Epiroc is another top manufacturer of mining and construction equipment with facilities around the world. The Swedish company integrates technologies including AI, big data, cloud, augmented reality, digital media, and cybersecurity.

In early February of this year, using scalable nanocomposites, researchers at the Schulich School of Engineering in Canada developed a sensor that detects methane at extremely low concentrations.

In addition to being a potential hazard to underground miners, methane is considered one of the more powerful and prevalent greenhouse gases.

While current laser technologies used to identify methane leaks are expensive, complicated, and cumbersome, the Schulich sensors fit in the palm of your hand and detect methane at only ten molecules of methane for every billion gas molecules in a mixture.

Also in February, Sandvik launched the xCell Cyclops sensor, which provides wireless, continuous, and real-time measurement of ground movements and convergence data directly to remote devices and features built-in notifications and alarms. The system enables remote assessment of rock mass behavior, leading to safer, more efficient, and cost-effective ground support and rehabilitation in underground mines.

"There is a pressing need for advancements in safety devices for tunnels within the mining industry. Accidents incur significant costs and attract negative publicity for a company. As environmental and regulatory hurdles mount, prioritizing the adoption of safety technologies for miners is a crucial step towards securing profitable mining contracts," concluded Vaibhav Gundre, disruptive tech senior consultant at GlobalData.


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