Mining technology has enjoyed an interesting history. In the early days of material extraction, there was a distinct focus on the development of new methods and tools that were designed to make everything more efficient and profitable.
Then for a time, while there were still some advancements happening, there was a longer period of status quo and less innovation. Lately, an exciting trend has been developing. New, more advanced mining technology has begun to have an impact on output. In fact, according to McKinsey, mining productivity began to grow by almost 3% per year, starting in 2014. For an industry that was beginning to become accustomed to dwindling revenues and growth, it has been a welcome change.
In this article, we will explore the storied history of mining technology, review the current methods and tools, but most importantly we’ll highlight the advancements in new tech that is beginning to have an impact on production.
Technologies for different mining methods
Mining and its associated tools fall into two primary categories: surface mining and underground mining. Each of these has several sub-categories of extraction that depend on factors like depth, thickness, ore type, floor strata, rock hardness, and incline.
Surface mining is the removal of material above the deposit and then removing the mineral deposit. Often also referred to as strip mining, at the conclusion of a project, the land can be reclaimed and restored for re-use.
Underground mining is used when the desired ore is deeper underground and accessed via vertical, horizontal, or incline shafts. These passages enable access to the ore and its removal by the machines and people involved in the extraction. The mining technology discussed in this article has been developed for use in both of these methods.
A short history of the evolution of mining technology
In the earliest days of mineral extraction, the work was done by hand. The Gold Rush days of the late 1800s saw many prospectors and miners flocking to areas like California, Colorado, and later Alaska and the Yukon in search of gold and silver. It was with a combination of guesswork, paper-based maps, land claims, and backbreaking physical labour that they were able to explore, find, and extract the precious metals. Eventually, fire and black powder explosives became common, as they were proven to break through rock much faster than hand tools.
At the turn of the century, bituminous coal mining came into prominence. As a soft mineral in plentiful supply, the sheer volume of coal that was to be extracted required more advanced procedures. Conveyor belts, mechanical drills, steam-powered pumps and other mechanical methods for extraction became the norm. Candle power was replaced by gas-powered lighting and then eventually by battery-powered electric lights. The combination of all of these advancements made for massive leaps in the productivity of extraction methods.
For about four decades, the conveyor belts, carts and trucks got bigger, as did the companies who owned them. About 50 years ago, many of these companies began to consolidate, scaling up their operations and their tools. Meanwhile, the use of machinery and the prevalence of surface mining techniques have made huge improvements in worker safety and efficiency.
In the past decade, the mining industry has had its most rapid technological innovations since the industrial revolution. Keep reading to learn about the mining technologies in prevalent use today, as well as some of the innovative new technologies being embraced by early adopters.
Mining technology in use today
Although it may seem counterintuitive, one of the biggest changes affecting the advancements of modern mining technology is not from any given tool — it’s the availability of data and the ability to analyze it. Even when you consider the advancement of the tools themselves, like mining shovels or drills, it is the measurement of their efficiency and associated costs that determines the innovation, in the pursuit of continuous quality improvement. With careful study and analysis, the ability of a real-world tool can be optimized to carry out its task with increasing efficiency and significant energy savings.
Analysis of data also comes into play with exploration. Prospecting is now a standard geochemical process, analyzing the raw materials for the presence of soil, rock, hydrocarbon vapors, and of course the presence of ore to indicate the quality of a site.
The extraction of materials represents a large portion of any mining operation. The goal is often to establish a continuous flow of materials. Hauling is virtually always the bottleneck in achieving true continuity — once a loader has filled a hauler and it’s full, there is some downtime while the next one gets into position.
Cutting-edge, modern mining technology
As new technologies become more accessible and affordable, mining operations are embracing new tech. It’s this proliferation of new technology that has accounted for the sudden upswing in mining innovation over the past decade.
Here are some examples of mining technology in use today that are being adopted by mining companies all over the world.
Microseismic sensors and load cells
The Internet of Things (IoT), meaning the ability to connect and track via access to the Internet, has given rise to many different types of sensor technology in mining. Microseismic sensors use small seismic events that are measured with a set of geophones to determine the strengths or thickness of rock. Load cells, meanwhile, can sense the weight of a payload, in a bucket or truck.
Mining companies also use sensor systems that can be incorporated into their machinery to continuously monitor the need for maintenance of a vehicle. In fact, the technology is being used to do “predictive maintenance,” using existing data to predict when equipment will need service, in advance of a mechanical failure. There are also sensors that will detect hazards of all kinds, like air quality, fire, and more.
GIS and spatial data visualization
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allow mining companies to accurately locate their projects or equipment in the field, using a combination of sensors and geospatial data.
Sometimes referred to as a “digital twin,” GIS enables 3D (three-dimensional) modelling of a project location, giving management an accurate understanding of project status, even from a remote location.
Augmented reality, the ability to layer digital information over top of a person’s real-world viewpoint, is also becoming more popular in the mining industry. AR can be used to conduct training in a safe environment or add value in the form of data in real situations. For example, a service technician can review the service history or repair procedures of a piece of equipment while looking at a specific part or machine with an AR viewfinder or glasses.
Increasingly, mining companies are using more advanced software to conduct their business. Beyond the typical business management tools, specific software platforms are being launched to help industrial companies make better use of data like GIS information and sensor data.
The dropping cost of software has led to the movement of connecting entire teams, rather than the legacy model of one costly software installation managed by a small number of engineers. In the SaaS model, companies pay recurring monthly fees to access software, while the software company is responsible for the upkeep and advancement of the tools. Field workers, via their own smartphones, can access crucial data in-situ, making for more efficient and knowledgeable work.
For example, Matidor is a platform for real-world project management that allows companies to display all of their GIS data along with multiple layers of other data (e.g. budgets, service schedules, productivity). Another example is SensorUp, which incorporates data from any number of IoT sensors (as above) to give an accurate picture of real-time project status in one handy view.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Artificial Intelligence (AI) can use available data and machine learning to assess and even make predictions about processing and exploration, maintenance schedules, and more. AI is also used in the operation of autonomous mining equipment.
Autonomous Haulage Systems (AHS)
For close to a decade, mining operations have been using autonomous haulage systems for extraction. Smaller, AI-controlled drones have an easier time navigating, especially underground, than their human-driven counterparts. The obvious safety implications are not to be ignored either.
According to a report by McKinsey Research, mining operations in Australia have reported efficiency gains of up to 20% using autonomous vehicles.
While the advancements of digital twin and rich data technologies continue to proliferate, camera technology has also seen some rapid advancements. Cameras have historically been a “nice-to-have” asset on a project site, but new, mining-specific cameras are making them a more vital piece in the mining technology stack.
The dusty and often harsh environments of mines have historically made it difficult to maintain a consistent visual image of the working environment. Self-cleaning cameras like ExcelSense’s ToughEyeTM can allow managers to have line-of-sight on everything from material transfer points, conveyor belts, drills, and more.
They do not require the kind of continuous maintenance and cleaning of traditional camera systems, enabling them to remain available and consistent without requiring ongoing maintenance, regardless of their operating environment. This important distinction allows these cameras to be used as crucial operational sensors.
ToughEye’s one-piece design, with no external parts, was developed specifically for harsh mining environments like mines. Their maintenance-free self-cleaning features mean that they will not require any downtime or maintenance, allowing for maximized productivity.
How to adopt new technologies without high costs or risk
It’s easy to assume that there will be prohibitive costs to procure and deploy new technological innovations. With the scale of some mining operations, there can be large opportunity cost involved with the adoption of any new technology. But testing new tools does not have to mean an all-or-nothing commitment.
In order to make the best use of the available new tools, mining companies should take a data-first approach to technology adoption. That means maintaining quantified performance metrics and having a clear process to measure the change induced by the introduction of new technology.
While the operation of these new technologies continues to become more accessible, truly harnessing their power comes from the ability to accurately measure their business impacts. For example, if a new piece of technology promises a reduction of downtime, the first step would be to analyze the existing and historic downtime data, then, proceeding with having a clear plan to measure the downtime following the deployment of the technology. A plan that is mutually understood and developed by the site and the supplier will likely execute the smoothest, optimize leveraging the supplier's support, and would minimize surprises.
A popular way to experiment with new tech these days is to approach it incrementally. It is common for hardware manufacturers to have a pilot program, which allows mining companies to experiment with smaller deployments of technology before investing in larger deployments of that tech. This gives the end-user an opportunity to run experiments to see if you have a business case for deploying the solution on a larger scale.
Mining technology adoption checklist
Here is a simple checklist for the adoption of new technologies in the mining industry.
- Map the parts of your operation that could most benefit from added efficiencies that new technology can provide
- Measure the current operational benchmarks and build a business case for using technology to improve upon them
- Explore ideas and options that will help with these known inefficiencies and improve productivity (e.g. equipment or software needs)
- Survey the market and reach out to vendors who supply the kind of tech you desire and discuss pilot programs or ask to see existing case studies or real-world examples of that tech in use. It may be a surprise, but the solution that you have in mind may have already been successfully implemented in another site operated by your company, or another customer with very similar conditions.
- Evaluate the impact of the chosen technology, assuming a complete rollout; suppliers will appreciate transparent communication of the full scale of deployment, as it helps with planning
- If an existing parallel deployment is not identified, budget for a pilot program of the new technology; clearly indicate the evaluation criteria, means of measuring the evaluation criteria and the timeline. Suppliers share your goal for the success of the project, and engaged suppliers can be counted as your partners. Effective mutual communication will greatly increase the chances of success.
Understanding what the success of a new technological deployment can look like before investing in it can help you make informed business decisions that are in the best interests of the company and its operations.
To learn more about ExcelSense Technologies cameras for mining and discuss a possible pilot project for your location, request a quote.