Inside the Digital Mine of the Future
By Jason Siegelin
It’s noon and the sun is low in the south. Miners limp into the howling wind and snow after another 12-hour manual drilling shift below, a team stretched thin in the absence of any new hires. Haul Truck 7 is nowhere to be found, operations staff received three false alarms about a loader breaking down, and with every second the realization becomes more painful: nobody is left in the mine to man the drilling equipment. And digital access to operating and equipment-related data? Forget about that.
Stories like this are far from uncommon in the mining industry of today. The finite nature of mineral resources – think zinc, copper, uranium, iron – forces the industry to rely upon on tearing rock apart from rock in some of the most remote locations in the world, from the frozen reaches of northern Alaska to the red sands of western Australia.
Yet the industry is notoriously behind its peers regarding its embrace of digital technologies, technologies that would make this remote reality a little more palatable. The consultants over at BCG specifically say that the industry isn’t yet “digitally mature,” while our friends at McKinsey estimate that mining companies must invest up to $350 billion in equipment and technology just to keep up with demand for copper and nickel through 2030.
This growing gap between supply and demand is fueled in large part by expanding demand for renewable sources of energy. Electric vehicles have copper-intensive batteries; nuclear power plants rely on uranium for fuel; solar panels rest on aluminum frames. Further hampering supply are labor shortages, becoming ubiquitously cited as factors presenting risks to continued profitability in this space.
Yet despite this growing inability to keep up with demand, a few of the world’s mining giants are starting to deploy more robust, digital, IoT-connected, and AI-based technologies to spur productivity and alleviate the problems caused by ore quality issues, labor shortages, and long transport distances.
So, what forms of digital technology is the mining industry adopting as we speak? How are the industry’s leaders beginning to use technology to boost supply in a world raving for more metals?
Machine Learning Models
First, more and more mining companies are adopting predictive, spatial models and digital twins to model post-blast rock fragmentation and more effectively plan their mines.
Engineers, in using AI and machine learning models to predict these factors and plan mines more effectively, can seriously improve ore quality and minimize the amount of money spent on secondary blasting, primary crushing, and loading ore trucks, as these models can lead to finer post-blast fragmentation and greater truck capacity.
Canadian mining behemoth Teck, for instance, is deploying three-dimensional modeling technologies at its Red Dog Operations (mining uranium) in northwestern Alaska, as part of its RACE21 digital transformation program. Teck’s machine learning-informed models are used to accurately predict the movement of rock and ore during blasting operations, among other use cases that can substantially improve the grade of the zinc mined by the company, preventing low-grade ore from winding up in processing facilities, improving milling rates. Teck claims that modeling efforts in this realm have improved the average grade of zinc delivered to processing facilities by five percent.
In a similar vein, British mining firm Anglo American is creating digital fragmentation models prior to blasting, specifically to eliminate the presence of unproductive blasts and improve ore quality. According to a recent article covering Anglo American’s digital transformation, creating these digital blast models enabled the company to reduce its number of blasts by an average between 20 percent and 50 percent every week in recent years, lowering operating costs substantially. The company has even built digital twins of its haul roads, improving traffic flow and allegedly leading to a 23-percent reduction in haul-cycle time, along with a 40-percent improvement in average truck-emptying speeds at its Mogalakwena platinum mine in South Africa.
Automated Drilling & Hauling
Beyond the realm of process and blast optimization, the major mining companies of the world are focusing extensively on automating excavation and drilling operations.
Agnico Eagle, for instance, is using Sandvik’s AutoMine digital automation technology to automate the operation of underground loading and hauling trucks at its LaRonde Complex in Quebec. As of 2021, the company reports that it automated 27 percent of production mucking in its main LaRonde mine, along with 23 percent in the LaRonde Zone 5 mine within the LaRonde Complex. In the latter mine, Agnico Eagle additionally automated the blasting and gas clearance processes, an effort it states helped generate an additional $10 million in revenue from boosted productivity.
Rio Tinto’s operations are not dissimilar, with the Australian mining company running an entirely automated, heavy-haul, long-distance railway system from its Pilbara mines in Western Australia. In this project, called AutoHaul, Rio Tinto runs completely automated, 1.5-mile-long trains on a total of over a thousand miles of track to deliver iron ore from 16 mines to several ports on the Indian Ocean. To date, Rio Tinto additionally claims to use over 130 autonomous mining trucks, with each truck allegedly operating an average of 700 hours more than conventional haul trucks. The company claims its automation of critical transportation operations has resulted in a 15-percent reduction in related operating costs, along with immense improvements in uptime.
Furthermore, global mining leader Glencore is also hopping on the automation bandwagon. The company is in the process of automating two Caterpillar drill rigs at its Compañía Minera Lomas Bayas copper mine, located in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. The company has stated that conversion of these drills is expected to be completed by June 2023 and involves the use of the ARDVARC digital autonomous control system, made by Australian drill automation company Flanders.
And a recent release from Teck claims that the use of autonomous haulage systems helped reduce the company’s high-potential safety incident frequency (incidents likely to cause permanent disability or death) by 38 percent in 2021 alone.
The last extremely notable trend has primarily arisen as a consequence of mining companies’ growing embrace of automation. It’s the increasing propagation of private wireless networks, specifically 4G LTE and 5G networks, inside mines in remote locations.
Companies like Glencore and Rio Tinto can’t just deploy driverless or remote-driven trucks without a means for controlling and communicating with them.
For instance, in tandem with its own automation efforts, Teck leadership states that the company deployed a 5G-ready LTE network at its Elkview steelmaking coal mine in southeastern British Columbia. Brazilian miner Vale, according to OT architect Luiz Barreto, is prioritizing the establishment of private means of connectivity for its autonomous haul trucks and drillers via LoRaWAN, LTE, and 5G.
What’s more, Agnico Eagle reports that it already possesses a 4G LTE signal throughout its LaRonde Zone 5 mine, and in 2021 started installing a private 5G network to support underground and surface operations at its Kittilä Mine in Finland. The same can be said for Glencore, a company claiming to be implementing a robust wireless signal in its Lomas Bayas project, which will enable a single engineer to operate eight drills from a remote command center by 2023.
Establishing an infrastructure for wireless connectivity, enabling mission-critical messages to be transmitted through hundreds of tons of rock, is only set to become more important as the mining world’s reliance on automated, remotely controlled haulers, drillers, and loaders becomes more prevalent.
In an industry filled with labor shortages, fatigued by growing gaps in supply, and malnourished by chronic underinvestment in the mid-2010s, the adoption of disruptive, digital technologies by the world’s largest mining companies is paramount. Such technology can help ensure continued access to metals critical for the global transition to renewable energy generation, breathing life and new purpose into a market oriented around extraction and environmental degradation
From the miner sitting in an idling ore truck in Alaska to countries cleaning their methods of power generation, countless people are becoming dependent on the productivity and safety enhancements of mining’s digital transformation. And the future in this realm is bright.