Global incorporated

Materials World magazine
,
8 Apr 2015

The Internet of Things promises leaps in mine safety and efficiency, and deploying the technology is simpler and less expensive than might be thought, as Guy Richards reports.

It has taken little more than 20 years for the internet to transform our lives, in commerce and industry as well as around the home. It is so ingrained in daily existence that we use it with no more thought than switching on a light bulb, and it has already matured to the point that it is now finding new ways to become essential to our lives. One of these – the Internet of Things (IoT) – shows particular promise, and mining is ripe for it. 

Essentially, the IoT is automation and control on a grand scale, and has been described as the interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices – the ‘things’ – within the existing internet infrastructure. In mining, it starts with fitting vehicles and other equipment with smart sensors (if they do not have them already) to monitor conditions such as a truck’s location or temperatures in a processing plant. This data is then streamed in real time over wi-fi networks to operations centres that can be hundreds of miles away. The sensors generate a huge amount of data, which then needs to be processed, filtered and made sense of in a business context at the enterprise level. 

The technologies that underpin the IoT have been developing for some years, but it is only comparatively recently that they have become ubiquitously cost-effective. In mining, the IoT will make projects safer, better optimised and more economic – in fact, at some mines it is already doing so. The technologies are also so varied that they can be usefully applied in underground as well as open-pit mines of any size, whether current or new. 

Improving the wheel

Enhanced safety essentially comes from being able to remove the human element from dangerous environments. For example, rather than having people drive haulage trucks to and from the pit face, the trucks can be fitted with actuators and onboard control systems and, given a degree of autonomy, since these huge machines are often already fitted with a range of location and proximity sensors, they can then be controlled remotely. Not only does this reduce the number of people at the mine, it also eliminates driver fatigue (and therefore error) and allows more predictable, continuous and optimised operation by doing away with the need for meal breaks and shift changes. 

This optimisation can be applied in a wider sense, too, in terms of a mine’s general layout and operation – for example, by coordinating the movement of the trucks with blasting, drilling, processing and tailings monitoring. 

The sensors on equipment such as trucks aren’t just used for control, though – the issue of maintenance is also key. Typically, the sensors would monitor parameters such as engine fluid levels and temperatures, brakes and vibrations, and the data they transmit can be used to flag up possible problems before they occur, allowing for predictive or preventative maintenance. This reduces the frequency with which maintenance is carried out and catches a problem before it becomes serious, reducing costs and again improving safety. 

Even this brief overview might give the impression that, despite the benefits it promises, implementing IoT technology in mines sounds complex, risky and expensive – factors almost certain to leave the idea dead in the water in the current economic climate. But that isn’t necessarily the case, according to analysts. 

For example, Bill McBeath, Chief Research Officer at supply chain consultancy ChainLink Research, says, ‘Once a mining company decides to go down the IoT route, there’s inevitably the issue of a large upfront capital cost. But equipment providers could offer some sort of monthly subscription for their solution, a bit like the contract model for mobile phones. That would certainly help the smaller miners, in particular, but I don’t see why this couldn’t be applied to larger companies.

‘Even so, prices of the various elements of the technology have fallen dramatically over the years, while capabilities have improved and implementation has been made easier. These factors are gradually opening up a progressively broader set of applications for which IoT technology is now cost-effective and feasible.’ 

Meanwhile, Joe Lee, an analyst with MaRS Market Intelligence, says, ‘If the focus is short-term only then most IoT-based innovations will probably not make sense. However, I believe that reconciling the issues of a tough industry climate and the need for better efficiency is about, to some extent, shifting the focus away from the short term. If a mining company is able to take a longer-term view, investing in IoT technology is likely to result in higher efficiency and profitability.’ 

Ringing the changes

Regarding its implementation, McBeath advises, ‘As with any technology that’s new to a company, start small, do pilot projects. Some people will wait and wait, concerned about the risk of starting too early and wasting a lot of money trying to make unproven technology work, or discovering that the return on investment is just not there. But there’s also the risk of being too late. A lot of IoT technology is pretty mature now, so you can start implementing it in low-risk ways.’ 

To this, Lee adds, ‘First and foremost, companies should focus on the underlying business case. Connectivity of devices or equipment for the sake of it will hardly benefit any mining operations. Secondly, they should understand the different technologies and standards that are potentially involved. The mining operations themselves might already have a set of older technologies embedded, so companies need to figure out if and how the newer technologies can work with the older ones. Finally, deploying IoT technology – like many others – will involve and impact people, so they need to be able to either drive the change or adapt to it, and even both.’ 

Computer networking company Cisco Systems has been implementing connectivity solutions for the mining industry for more than 10 years, so it is well placed to offer insights into the actual types of IoT technology being deployed. Its Global Lead for Mining and Process Industries, Prasanna Venkatesan, says, ‘The underlying infrastructure that is required for all these solutions is driven by the need for a reliable and secure communications infrastructure that can run multiple services and applications – voice, video, data and even control traffic – on the same network. This makes IoT solutions easier to manage, which is key for mine operators so that they can get back to their core business of managing their operations.

‘When it comes to different types of solutions that are then overlaid on this core infrastructure, it really depends on the type of mine and where they are in their evolution. For example, ventilation controls make sense for underground mines that spend a large component of their energy bill on heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. With solutions to track where equipment and personnel are located, and whether or not diesel engine-driven equipment is active – and hence needs to be vented – an operator can have ventilation controls turn on or off automatically, saving up to 20% on energy costs.

He adds, ‘For predictive maintenance, we and our partners have developed solutions that have enabled us to predict failures up to two months in advance and with a better than 85% confidence interval.
We have also derived ‘virtual sensor’ algorithms what can predict engine oil quality between oil sampling intervals’. 

Some mining companies are clearly embracing this technology but, in Lee’s opinion, more can and should be done. ‘In the end, it comes back to having more people who are willing to take risks, explore and innovate, even in today’s tough industry climate,’ he says. ‘About a year ago, Anglo American’s Chief Executive, Mark Cutifani, argued that the mining industry must speed up innovation or be marginalised. I think he’s right.’

IoT successes

At its Chelopech gold, copper and silver mine in Bulgaria, Dundee Precious Metals has increased production from 0.5Mtpa to 2Mtpa, and saved nearly US$2.5 million in communications costs over two years. 

At its Pilbara project in Western Australia, Rio Tinto has been using autonomous trucks since 2008, which between them have clocked up about three million miles and hauled nearly 250Mt of ore in that time. They are connected wirelessly and controlled from the company’s operations centre in Perth, about 1,000 miles away from the project.