Hacking the mining industry

Last month in San Francisco, developers, data scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs came together to try to find technological solutions for some of mining’s biggest challenge. The ‘hackathon’ was put on by mining innovation programme Unearthed in partnership with Caterpillar. Rod James spoke to Unearthed director Justin Strharsky about the and the increasingly comfortable relationship between mining and technology.

Rod James: Tell me about Unearthed

Justin Strharsky: We’ve been around since 2014. Myself and the other co-founders have all experienced first-hand how challenging it is to introduce new technology into the sector, two of us from the perspective of having run technology startups focused on resources and the other having been an executive in a large gold company, trying to get his company to be more agile and innovative. We saw an opportunity to assist companies to become more globally competitive by connecting them to startups and entrepreneurs, data scientists, programmers and the like, so we do that through Hackathon events.

We’ve run some ten or 11 of them around the world and they’ve produced 150 or so prototype technologies that all have the potential to impact the bottom line of the organisations we work with. Those organisations are mainly mining and oil and gas companies. We make sure that innovators own the intellectual property of their solutions because we believe the way for the industry to adapt quickly is to incentivise entrepreneurs. Startups are the most cost-effective way to run an experiment in the market and our industry has so far failed to interact with them.

RJ: Was this innate conservatism a barrier to getting Unearthed off the ground?

JS: Absolutely. I think there is a cultural obstacle there but a couple of things have changed which make now a more exciting time to be doing what we do. There’s a broad recognition on the part of the industry that they can’t keep going through these cycles where they lay people off in order to reduce costs. It’s not sustainable and doesn’t generate long-term efficiencies. With commodity prices low, there is a renewed focus on how to become more innovative.

They are also seeing how mega technology trends like big data predictive analytics and the internet of things are affecting other industries. So the insular bubble of industry isn’t as insular as it used to be.

RJ: The participants in your Hackathons, including the most recent in San Francisco, are almost all from non-mining backgrounds. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

JS: You’re right that most of them do not have experience of the industry and that is a strength. To make sure the solutions they produce are fit for purpose we have them work alongside mentors from industry. That means that they get just enough insider knowledge to make sure they aren’t suggesting a path that’s untenable. It also means that industry is building relationships with people it hasn’t reached out to before. Those mentors from our participating companies often become innovation champions inside their own business and get exposure to new technology.

At the same time, we’ve seen from interacting with innovator communities around the world that there is ignorance of opportunities in the mining sector. Those folks aren’t aware there is a $400bn industry with operational problems that can be solved by people with their skills.

RJ: What were the main problems being worked on at the San Francisco Hackathon?

JS: There were two primary problems. One came from Caterpillar and that was about optimising the operator performance of their equipment. The way that operators handle their large trucks can have an impact on the maintenance and longevity of those vehicles. Caterpillar provided a load of data from their onboard systems. The idea was to figure out if the analysis of that data combined with some clever ideas could build some prototype solutions for providing feedback in real time to operators of the trucks.

The other one was from BHP Billiton. That was based around data from the world’s longest private heavy haul railway, which is operated by BHP here in Western Australia. That was about predicting delays in the system, which are very costly, and figuring out if the data from the network could be used to reduce those delays.

RJ: What were the winning solutions?

JS: The first-placed team produced an algorithm that searched across BHP data from the rail network and highlighted some areas of potential concern. It looked at where delays were likely and was able to surface those and make recommendations to the operators on what to do.

The second-placed team won on the back of the Caterpillar challenge. They looked at the data coming off those truck systems and were able to apply a relatively accurate prediction about what’s likely to happen on the truck and then use that data to provide feedback to the operators. But they went a step further to suggest some gamification techniques to change the behaviour of the operators.

RJ: What kind of behaviours are we talking about?

JS: I’m very much over-simplifying this but as you can imagine, doing things like slamming on the brakes in these trucks will create wear and performance issues over time. The shifting of gears, acceleration and deceleration - things like that in terms of improving the efficiency and reliability of the machinery.

RJ: From your conversations with industry partners, are mining companies looking to hire more programmers and data scientists?

JS: They certainly are but I don’t know if that’s the way forward. We are able to help those companies with an understanding of the kind of challenges they have and where they can get operational efficiencies. Just hiring some folks and throwing them at a problem isn’t going to help a lot.

We offer a kind of sandbox environment where they can try out a bunch of things and that gives them the ability to experiment with very low risk. Then if they see some technology that might have an impact on their bottom line then they can pursue it further…We’ve seen lots of positive outcomes from these events. People have been hired after their performance at an event, people have won contract work, and companies have been formed to commercialise the prototypes that have emerged.

RJ: What’s the next step? I gather a startup accelerator could be in the works.

JS: Before that San Francisco event we took a group of senior leaders from BHP, Gekko and others on an exploration of Silicon Valley. We took them to meet corporate venture capital arms, accelerators and some startups in the sector as a way to figure out not only what’s good about the Silicon Valley ecosystem but what our sector needs to do differently. What are our strengths and unique opportunities? We realised that we have to invest in a sustainable ecosystem around which we can scale technology ventures that introduce new technology to the industry.

What that means is a technology accelerator that take the best of those prototype technologies and themes, gives them feed capital and access to mentors and helps them to scale as quickly as possible. Last year we did a pilot programme like that. We took one company, Newton Labs, which came out of one our Hackathon events, and with the help of our industry mentors helped them win the National Innovator of the Year award [in Western Australia] and helped them get commercial trials of their technology on several large mine sites here. We are looking to scale it up to ten to 20 companies a year.