Q&A: the Internet of things and mining’s digital future with Inmarsat

Matthew Hall 20 July 2020 (Last Updated July 17th, 2020 10:23)

The global mining sector is undergoing an Internet of Things (IoT) revolution according to new research by Inmarsat, with respondents reporting a significant increase in adoption of IoT technologies. We speak to Inmarsat global mining director Joe Carr to discuss the study’s findings and what IoT means for mining’s digital future.

Q&A: the Internet of things and mining’s digital future with Inmarsat
Inmarsat research found that only 15% organisations have access to reliable IoT connectivity. Credit: Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay.

Satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat’s May 2020 report explores the rise of IoT in mining operations across the globe, with mining companies reporting successes in implementing projects to safeguard workers via remote tracking, monitor drilling, and observe acid mine drainage remotely. Despite the relative immaturity of IoT applications in the mining sector, there are strong prospects for further, more complex developments of IoT solutions at mines, as Inmarsat global mining director Joe Carr explains.

Matthew Hall (MH): How is the Internet of Things relevant to mining operations, and how can it be used effectively?

Joe Carr (JC): I guess it’s relevant for a number of things, and obviously Covid-19 is a fantastic example of why it’s relevant in the fact that miners have struggled to get people to sites – there’s a lot of remote mines. IoT enables us to move beyond the way things have traditionally been done in mining, which is necessarily all with people – you want to know what’s going on with the water pump, so you get in your truck and you drive for hours, and you find out what’s happening at the remote pump. And that’s not really an efficient way to do things.

Where IoT is interesting, is it will enable us to unlock that next level of production efficiency that the mining industry has struggled with, and it will enable us to produce more for less. In turn, that will enable us to meet the demands of a growing population in the green economy, and metals for all the things we have around us like electric cars and others. So IoT is incredibly relevant because it can make things better for the mining industry and more cost effective.

MH: How are mining companies making use of IoT already?

JC: Our research looked at a number of areas. So we looked at ESG [environmental, social, governance], tailings dams, water management, health and safety of employees, and so on. Health and safety came out on top, but you can essentially deploy IoT in almost every facet of the business. What was interesting when looking at use cases was that although autonomous vehicles are a really interesting area to cover, very few mining companies were actually looking at autonomous vehicles.

And you know, that makes sense, because autonomous vehicles are difficult. They’re a difficult project to get over the line and run successfully and they require a lot of budget. So when we look initially at the IoT deployments people are making, a lot of the IoT deployments we could see were really first steps – fleet tracking, water monitoring, those kinds of things, areas where they’re simpler to implement, but they’re good first steps into the marketplace.

MH: How can Inmarsat help mining companies looking to develop IoT applications?

JC: The thing with IoT is that there’s a massive spectrum of ability and sites – so you go to some sites, and there’s nothing, there’s no network, there’s no connected sensors, everything’s done incredibly manually. And then you’ll go to another site in the same mining company’s portfolio, and they’ll have absolutely everything, all the bells and whistles, and it’ll all be connected and so the needs are very different.

At the moment there’s such a broad spectrum, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the mining industry. And if anyone says there is, it’s just not possible, because mining is so different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And so that’s why we created the tailings insight system we did.

The reason we created the two separate propositions is to meet two very different markets. If we look at them at a very high level, what Tailings Insight – Cloud does is it takes your existing sensors and your existing network architecture on-site that your mining company already has; it takes all of that and it takes the data from that site and pushes it to the cloud API, and it enables all that data to be put into a platform that’s accessible from anywhere.

It allows you to see all of your data in one place and it sorts all the data and produces all the analytics that allow you to make the decisions. So that kind of solution is great for companies that have everything in place.

For people who need more of a managed service or need specific assistance in certain areas, there’s Tailings Insight – Plus, and Plus is everything that comes with Cloud, but it also means that Inmarsat will partner with the end-user to work through gathering all that data. So we’ll help capture the data, we’ll help do all the integration, we will enable the connectivity on the site, and then we will allow them to push that data in real time from the site into the cloud-based application.

MH: Your report found that 65% of mining companies had fully deployed at least one IoT project, a considerable rise from the 2% in 2018. What do you think prompted such rapid adoption?

JC: I think we’ve seen a natural progression of projects that were in the pipeline in 2018 now being deployed. But I also think that when we look at the types of projects people are doing, there’s a sort of toe in the water thing where they’re looking for problems that are easy to put in a box. Things like water monitoring – how do we monitor a pump? How can we connect the pump and have the data taken off it so we don’t have to send a person out, which isn’t particularly productive?

A lot of the things that we’re seeing trialled today are simple things to do, with very easy to define good outcomes that have a really easy cost-benefit. If you look at something like getting information from a water pump, and then you look at tracking your entire mining fleet and all your people on-site, they’re two very different things, and obviously the latter is far more complicated.

We should see over the next couple of years, the more complicated projects, which have greater benefits but are more expensive to do and require more skills, we’ll start to see them appearing. .

MH: What are the cybersecurity challenges of IoT, and how can miners overcome them?

JC: Mines are no longer the fortresses they used to be where everything was kept on site, and the more connected instruments we have, the bigger the cybersecurity risks become in terms of potential areas to look at. We see a lot of hesitancy within mining companies because of cybersecurity. Actually, what’s really interesting with the research we’ve done, is that we found that 11% of organisations haven’t done anything – they’ve taken no steps at all to look at their IoT security. And then 64% of organisations said they lacked the security skills in-house.

There’s clearly the question of are you building your own solutions, or are you procuring solutions from known and trusted vendors? There are a number of different ways companies can go in that make sense, but 50% said that they’re focused on partnering with cybersecurity specialists.

Most mines are their own companies, essentially, that can have hundreds if not thousands of employees. So how do you do that level of cybersecurity within a business, that can have multiple business units, that has multiple sites, that works in multiple languages?

All of those complexities are the things that mining companies are trying to deal with. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong model, necessarily, but we see a lot of them understanding that miners are good at mining and they’re not necessarily good at IoT and cybersecurity and connectivity. So partnering is really a big way that mining organisations are dealing with these issues.