Despite advances in technology, mining operations today are fundamentally the same as they were half a century ago. Faced with increasing demand, diminished ore grades, less accessible deposits, and public pressure to be more environmentally and socially responsible, mining companies must develop new techniques by adopting emerging technologies to evolve their industry.
Trends and Pain Points in Mining
Mining has a less than stellar reputation when it comes to social and environmental impact. Despite technical advances and modern equipment, the mining industry as a whole has increased water consumption and is trailed by a legacy of poorly rehabilitated mines that have left behind chronic environmental problems like acid drainage. Mining companies can improve their image and build trust if they increase supply chain transparency and implement environmentally-sound practices that can stand up to regulatory pressure and the scrutiny of an increasingly aware consumer market. Firms must push innovation and R&D to find solutions (advancing techniques like biomining) to reduce their environmental footprint and mitigate the risk of large-scale incidents.
As the global population rises, so too does demand for minerals and metals. The depletion of near surface resources has pushed mining companies to look for lower-grade ores at much greater depths and to consider mine development in less politically stable areas. Extensive investment is required prior to mineral extraction from difficult-to-access deposits, and though there are innovative mining methods like block caving, high profitability must be assured before capital-intensive projects can proceed for the industry is highly risk-averse. Facing tight profit margins and buffeted by social and regulatory pressure, mining companies that streamline operations and develop new methods of mineral and metal extraction and processing will be able to meet demand and control costs.
The operations of a typical mining company are geographically dispersed. Valuable information is lost due to these operational silos, obstructing a company’s ability to coordinate and collaborate. Individual mines often operate with a high degree of independence and varied corporate structures limit centralized management, making it difficult to introduce disruptive technologies across an organization.
Safety & Labor Scarcity
Mines are busy, noisy and dangerous working environments. Workplace injuries are underreported globally and deaths not uncommon. Entering a mine can expose a miner to dust, gases, explosions, high heat, flooding, falling rocks, and cave-ins. Mines with the highest safety standards are not immune to these risks, but with proper precautions and investment in safety solutions and training, safety can be significantly improved. Compounding issues, the mining industry is suffering from a labor shortage. A culture of innovation, a renewed focus on safety, and the implementation of new technologies is key to recruitment and training of new workers.
Current State of Mining Technology
The mining industry is one of the least digitized in the world, with leadership that up until recent years hesitated to invest in any tech if a quantifiable, short-term return could not be guaranteed. Today, proven technologies that have been successfully implemented in other industries do not present the same level of risk. Drones and robots are being successfully introduced to mining operations to eliminate dangerous and monotonous jobs, and companies are investing in mine connectivity like leaky feeders or LoRA technologies to extend a signal deep underground. Some forward-thinking companies like Rio Tinto have begun to pursue digital transformation on a grand scale. Part of Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’ program, for example, involves a massive investment to automate a mine’s supply chain from pit to port including an extensive rail network.
Potential for AR/VR and Wearables
In addition to drones and robots, technologies like augmented and virtual reality and wearable devices will optimize the productivity and safety of the mining workforce. Immersive and wearable technologies, whether worn within the mine or in a control center a continent away, can help users interact with remote colleagues and visualize and analyze data generated from sensors deep below the surface of the earth. Wearables can enhance real-time visibility into a mine’s operations, allowing for more effective and informed decision making; while simulating mine environments and interacting with asset data in AR/VR have a wide range of training and other applications.
Applications of Immersive and Wearable Tech in Mining
Exploration of New Mine Sites
Today, drones and UAVs are routinely used to study an area’s geology, producing 3D maps for general inspection. Drones themselves can even be operated via smart glasses (ex. Epson). The data gathered above and below ground forms the basis for digital models in virtual or mixed reality that can be used to perform safety inspections and maintenance assessments, for planning construction and environmental mitigation efforts, and to monitor inventory.
Before drones, workers typically performed surveying tasks by mounting high scaffolds, exposing themselves to great risk. Moreover, the information wasn’t always accurate. Drone mapping is cheaper, faster and more precise; and the information gathered – when put into AR/VR – allows for intuitive visualization and comprehension of the results of exploration, development drilling, geological models, and topography studies at scale. AR/VR also make for better remote collaboration and understanding among stakeholders such as surveyors, mining engineers and equipment operators, which speeds up decision making.
Few discoveries make it beyond feasibility studies to become an actual mining site, so it’s important to keep costs down and build an accurate model in a short period of time to get a comprehensive picture of the potential mine. A lot of time and money can be saved by not having to visit a mine site on foot, which eliminates risks associated with traversing difficult terrain in addition to travel expenses.
Development and Planning
AR/VR is a powerful visualization tool, making data easily accessible, engaging and meaningful to potential investors and other stakeholders. High-fidelity imaging of geological information, mine plans, geolocated borehole data, etc. can be modeled in AR/VR for easy, interactive analysis. Immersive simulations can also be used to show local community members the footprint of a planned mine throughout its development and operation, and how mine closure and post-mine closure activities will affect the area.
AR/VR, increasingly used by construction contractors to plan mines and discover design flaws before production begins, produces interactive 3D models that can be used throughout the life of a mine and integrated with an operation’s other digital assets for maintenance, training, etc. A full digital twin of a mine – uniting all mine assets via spatial data and other real-time information – allows for live monitoring and management of its vehicles, ore deposits, human workers, and machines; however, the use of digital twin technology requires a high level of digitization of the entire mining operation.
Future advances in automation may largely remove humans from the dangers of the most hazardous mines, but today’s miners are still at risk and require the most effective tools available for communication, health, and safety. Workers entering a mine today can be equipped with a range of wearable sensors and sensor-embedded protective equipment (PPE) that track their health and environment. Any device brought into a mine must be highly durable and able to perform in hazardous, wet environments as per industry regulations. Wearables might alert workers via sound, light or vibration to issues such as exposure to dangerous gases, seismic anomalies, and proximity to moving or malfunctioning equipment or vehicles. Currently in use are sensor-enabled safety helmets (ex. Jannetec), vests (Lightflex), shirts (Mitsufuji) and wristbands (Fatigue Science). These keep workers connected and alert to danger within and without their bodies, and in most cases can communicate with equipment and vehicles on site.
Wearable devices that track biometric information embedded with RFID technology can track a worker’s location, even detect falls and physical distress, which is key for lone workers. Sensors can track assets and people in real time, generating data that can be later analyzed to improve operations and the mine site itself. AR smart glasses (with appropriate safety ratings, of course) present another means of notifying workers about safety threats and even providing heads-up, hands-free safety protocols and directions.
There are now early-warning drowsiness detection systems like Optalert and other wearables designed to monitor a mining vehicle operator’s alertness in order to reduce fatigue-related incidents. AR glasses can eliminate an operator’s blind spots and minimize peripheral distractions like the complicated control panels inside the vehicle. Should an accident occur, someone wearing AR glasses could livestream the situation to an expert or supervisor, helping to treat the fallen worker before first responders arrive. AR/VR can also be used to train workers for hazardous environments, allowing them to gain experience without assuming the risk of practicing in a live environment.
Proper servicing and maintenance of mining equipment and vehicles can help avoid potentially catastrophic mechanical breakdowns in a mine. Of course, this is difficult with a shortage of highly-trained workers, but new fleets of connected mining machinery provide real-time diagnostic data allowing for predictive maintenance. A worker wearing AR glasses, even without a clear understanding of standard operating procedures or familiarity with the piece of equipment in question, can perform maintenance and repair with the assistance of a remote expert or vendor, remaining heads-up and hands-free the whole time. This reduces reliance on key personnel without impairing equipment output.
Mine suppliers like Caterpillar and Atlas Copco now market their machines and vehicles with VR training simulations and use the same tech to provide AR assistance for maintenance and repair. Miners can practice tasks in VR, tasks like performing an inspection on a Haulpak vehicle in a Mobile Maintenance Repair Workshop or performing a 3D scan of a physical pump for visualization; and then perform the same tasks in real life with prompts in a pair of smart glasses. Better maintenance, repair and overhaul practices with the aid of AR/VR will result in less equipment downtime, higher productivity, lower maintenance costs and, most importantly, improved safety for human operators.
Virtual reality is an incredibly effective and efficient training tool especially for industrial workers because it allows trainees to gain experience without visiting a mine in person. Restrictive permit policies at some mines mean that employees can’t enter the mine without training. VR is the closest thing to doing the job in real life, and research from Stanford University and other institutions has found that learners recall more when using virtual teaching methods than with traditional methods. When it comes to high-risk tasks and hazard awareness, there’s no way to simulate a realistic mine rescue situation other than in VR. In VR, the user can be burned, fall from a height or even be electrocuted without real consequences. The medium also offers measurable data to assess a user’s performance. For instance, in a virtual inspection of a mine, the trainer can observe not only the user’s movements but also her gaze to see what draws her attention first.
The ability to walk, climb and interact in an environment using AR/VR will make for easier discovery and better planning of mines, faster innovation and greater productivity, increased safety and higher quality, all of which can improve industry recruitment. The changing nature of mining, including increasing digitization and automation, should draw a new generation of workers—tech-savvy individuals traditionally attracted to more high-profile industries as well as talent that hadn’t considered mining because they didn’t want to work underground or in remote areas. Pushing into frontier mining areas and planning new mines with new extraction and processing techniques (with a lighter human touch) will further the incorporation of new technologies; allowing miners to face less challenging working conditions and making mining as a whole a more sophisticated sector. Who knows? Tech companies that rely on mined materials to build their products might even begin their own mining operations in the future.
The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and confirmed speakers, available on the conference website.