2020 saw mines suspended on an unprecedented scale: more than 1,600 mines were recorded by data and analytics company GlobalData as being temporarily suspended at the height of the first wave of Covid-19 in late March and early April of last year.
And while many mines have since restarted, adopting new health and safety measures to minimise the risk of potential outbreaks, the industry has emerged from the pandemic with one eye cautiously looking towards the next crisis that could throw supply chains into disarray.
Smart technologies and digital equipment have been touted as one potential bulwark for the mining industry against future pandemics – an autonomous drill can’t get sick, while a human drill operator can. We spoke to Boris Ivanov to find out what technology trends the mining industry may chase, and how the pandemic has affected digital transformation in the sector.
Matthew Hall: What are the major trends in smart mining that you see growing over the next decade?
Boris Ivanov: From improving planning and operational efficiencies to mine safety and workflow productivity, rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies could become instrumental to the smooth and successful running of mines.
For example, by using pattern matching and predictive analysis, AI programmes can analyse significant quantities of geological data and identify new and potentially valuable sites to mine.
This will not only help companies to locate and extract minerals at a much quicker pace, but also to reduce the initial investment required as mining companies will be able to plan exploration activities with more precision.
As exploration of new deposits becomes increasingly complex, including lower ore grades and deeper deposits, we could see the implementation of AI-powered autonomous systems become increasingly popular among mining companies.
Using self-controlled machines to take charge of the operations in unstable environments will not only significantly reduce the threat to miners’ lives, but it will also facilitate the rise of the 24/7 mine, with machines able to work non-stop. This increased emphasis on the safety of the workforce and mines is motivating the development of the mining automation market.
The hope is that this market shift will gain momentum over the next decade; however, there are other crucial factors which cannot be overlooked. At the moment, the costs associated with supporting and running a fully automated mine are way too high and the technologies are too complicated to be implemented on the ground without additional knowledge and enhanced skill sets among miners.
Whilst a realisation of the benefits of smart mining will help to start re-direct this narrative, much more needs to change before digital technologies become a standard solution on a mass scale.
MH: Has the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the need for mining companies to adopt smart technologies?
BI: Yes, I believe it has. The Covid-19 pandemic triggered one of the most disruptive periods on record for mining companies. Overnight, complete lockdowns were introduced globally and with day-to-day operations all but suspended, companies had to take swift action to keep the supply chain intact.
Along with the sudden unplanned shift towards remote working, this triggered many companies to re-assess the viability of their operations and acted as a wake-up call, demonstrating the need to embrace new processes and technologies in order to keep pace with market demands and trends.
As a result, the demand for smart mining solutions has risen over the past 12 months, with autonomous and drone technology powered by machine learning at the forefront. For example, by using smart data and machine learning capabilities, a single operator can now remotely control several drill rigs simultaneously, with autonomous vehicles taking over pit-to-pit operations.
Remote monitoring tools have also delivered tangible benefits given mine shutdowns – allowing companies to monitor and review the performance and data from their equipment without having to be on site or in the control room. Not only have these helped to optimise the efficiency of mines, but they have also improved both safety and performance, whilst enabling operations to continue running despite social distancing restrictions.
The global pandemic has highlighted how important these innovations are, but it has also sharpened the focus on new tech’s unresolved challenges. The best digital solutions for the industry so far lie around mining operations, for example, geological analysis and remote surveying. Whilst the adoption of these technologies is starting to accelerate, we are still a considerable way off embracing fully automated mines.
MH: Are there ways the pandemic has had any detrimental effect on company plans for digital transformation?
BI: Most mining companies recognise the value of digitisation and how it can help provide cost efficiencies, speed up production, enhance sustainability, and create new ways of working, alongside keeping workforces safe. There is a competitive pressure to digitalise and modernise processes, but many companies don’t have the luxury of time or the spare budgets to develop their own solutions.
It isn’t surprising that many metals and mining companies struggle to implement digital transformations. Some workforces tend to be less familiar with digital solutions than in other industries; they frequently operate in remote locations with poor network bandwidth and where the rugged terrain makes deploying digital sensors difficult.
There also can be cultural resistance to incorporating digital technologies into processes that have been established for more than a century, with workers fearing redundancies because of automation.
However, amid this backdrop, the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst – forcing mine managers and investors to consider all remote working solutions amid lockdown measures and restrictions on the ability to travel. While there are still significant challenges for companies to close the digital strategy-execution gap, crisis fuels innovation and new ways of thinking about old problems will certainly emerge.
MH: How can the mining industry advance smart mining in a way that can counter the challenges miners face over the coming years, as we emerge from the pandemic with an impending climate crisis on the horizon?
BI: With the green transition rapidly gaining traction, and with mining companies under pressure to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, operations will need to adapt to smarter ways of working to comply with regulatory changes and to keep pace with market standards.
Against this backdrop, sustainable mining is set to become more important. Driven by smart mining technologies, companies can significantly reduce their impact on surrounding ecosystems by tracking how resources are extracted and disposed of. For example, automated drones can be used to monitor excavation and extraction projects, keeping detailed accounts on the spread of waste products and harmful materials.
Furthermore, drones can also be used to assess pipeline infrastructure and retention ponds, whilst also providing safety surveillance in hazardous areas and asset management across multiple sites. This will not only mitigate against sending geologists or miners into a hostile environment, but by conducting regular audits, mining operations can be adapted to minimise the ecological impact and lower the operation’s environmental footprint.
AI-powered models can also be developed to enhance the maintenance of equipment and predict the future impact of mining operations, therefore improving productivity and facilitating the development of less environmentally damaging techniques.