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Technological Trends Driving Advances in the Mining Industry

By Charlie Cropp MRICS
October 4, 2021
Technological advancements in the mining industry, have the potential to deliver a large amount of value to those in the industry.

Through automation, reality capture, and digitisation, advances in technology are fundamentally impacting the mining sector. Technologies transforming the sector include multi-input 3D scan registration, autonomous vehicles, drones and smart sensors. And the potential returns are stunning. 

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), technological advances in mining have the potential to deliver more than $425bn to the industry and its stakeholders by 2025.¹ This is equivalent to 3-4% of total industry revenue during the same period.

Fundamental to all these developments are advances in reality capture. By scanning the environment of the mine, either above or below ground, detailed digital maps are being created to redesign processes and workflows, make mines safer, more economical and sustainable.

This article will look at some of these trends in more detail and highlight how reality capture is central to driving change in the industry. Let’s get started.

Trend 1: Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming all-pervasive. It now plays a role in a wide variety of sectors, mining included. As mining environments evolve rapidly, machine learning and AI will play a pivotal role. Impact rapid analysis and prediction to ensure the optimum way of working today and for the not-too-distant future.

Here are some ways artificial intelligence is impacting working mines:

  • Exploration: Companies can find minerals and metals more efficiently by using high-performance AI technology to identify potential sites and process and analyse seismic data.
  • Site Planning: Once the potential site is identified, AI can help engineers learn more about terrains, precisely map out the territory and provide predictions of yield and efficiency.
  • Site maintenance: AI can carry out hundreds if not thousands of what-if scenarios to highlight potential issues and ensure the site is stable and safe.
  • Site optimisation: While we will talk about automation next, AI can take automated vehicle and sensor data and produce the best routes or process changes to improve efficiency — significantly reducing the possibility of human errors.

How AI also contributes to mining reality capture

The use of AI also enhances the reality capture needed for mining. For example, capture and registration software is required to process and combine the thousands of scans and sensor inputs from a mine. AI algorithms can register these scans, then extract objects and features from the point cloud data sets, photo capture and on-site sensor data. 

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Trend 2: Automation

The future of the mining industry is tied to automation and even fully automated mining sites. Automation in mining, as in any industry, will improve operational efficiency and help manage unforeseen events, such as the impact of the pandemic. Such resilience will also be considered as an indicator of a sustainable business.

Some of the benefits of automation include:

  • Allowing humans to work machinery remotely. 
  • Keeping the human workforce out of more hazardous environments. 
  • Increased productivity.

Mining companies worldwide have been using autonomous trucks and other vehicles in their pit-to-pit operations. Now, drilling systems are also being simplified with one remote operator able to control many drill rigs simultaneously.

Such advances in automation will reduce the number of human workers needed. BDO Global estimates automation could eventually replace 50% of on-site mining work, improving safety prospects and allowing resources to be distributed effectively elsewhere across operations.²

How automation contributes to reality capture

All automation depends on up-to-date situation analysis and maps. While AI has a significant influence on analysing the resulting sensor output, scans and images, the whole process or workflow must be automated to ensure that results are generated quickly and accurately. Here, the cloud comes into its own, providing automated workflows to create a central off-site store of 3D images and sensor data, creating a digital twin of the actual site.

Trend 3: Drones

Anyone who adopts drones as part of their mining operations will quickly realise the significant added value they bring.

Drones can deliver:

  • Access to difficult to reach areas — improving efficiency/outcomes in the process.
  • Improved safety, as humans don’t have to venture into dangerous areas — drones can do the job better.
  • Better uptime for machinery, providing detailed insight into conditions before operations begin and reduced maintenance costs for damaged machinery.
  • Lowering the cost of data capture. For example, cheaper than manned aircraft.

Drones can also contribute to a range of operational tasks, including:

  • Security surveillance 
  • Asset management
  • Scanning and image capture
  • Measuring and monitoring stockpiles
  • Infrastructure inspection
  • Underground data collection

How drones contribute to reality capture

The ability to capture data above and below ground creates a more detailed and comprehensive picture of the mine. The trick here is to take all of these data inputs and integrate them into a workflow. 

Drone output is a crucial element in providing the rich data needed by cloud-based registration software to help deliver the digital twin of the site — and keep it up to date.

Trend 4: Robotics

Robotic devices are already performing a range of tasks within the mining industry, including blasting, drilling, hauling, loading, safety work, and mineral sampling. 

Mining robots can also be used to reopen and repurpose abandoned mines. They can access narrow surface areas that humans could not access and place IoT sensors for constant monitoring and data capture. 

In finding new uses for robotics, mining has only scratched the surface. However, robots don’t yet operate on a joined-up, cooperative basis, so we are a fair way from full automation. They will need to work hand in hand with humans for the foreseeable future.

How robotics contributes to reality capture

Innovations such as SLAM technology (Simultaneous Location and Mapping) enable real-time data capture above and below ground. SLAM enables small robots to self-drive into hazardous environments to take scans, images and collect sensor data.

With robotic scanning becoming common practice, mine users will have to utilise applications to mix-and-match scanning technology on the same project. These applications perform what’s known as “sensor fusion,” meaning they combine data from various sensors with visual imagery to produce a rapid, information-rich output.

Trend 5: Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT is an emerging network technology based on the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and Internet technology. It can contribute to the traceability and visibility of a mining operation. 

With 24/7 real-time IoT sensors, mines can automate the data gathering process. Advances in wireless monitoring systems and the advent of industrial 5G can connect many sensors to improve safety and sustainability both above and below ground.

How the IoT contributes to reality capture

Digital twins created by reality capture software are brought to life by IoT sensor data. Virtual facsimiles of physical assets, processes, and systems can be brought to life by representing the visual elements and the detailed measurement data from IoT devices. The outputs from this sensor fusion are increasingly being managed and maintained through BIM processes.

How Reality Capture is bringing it all together 

Technological advances in the mining industry have some impressive use cases, and there are many exciting areas to pursue. However, it is always worth a note of caution. Developments such as robotics, IoT and drones, while transformative, are moving at uneven paces. You must create your own technology roadmap, a solid plan and invest for a specific reason. Concentrating on what outcomes you want to achieve will help decide where to begin or continue your digital transformation.

What is not in doubt is that the future of mining lies in automation and data-led transformation. By providing the ability to quickly and accurately process large quantities of 3D data, reality capture solutions provide the basis for new and exciting initiatives that will transform the mining industry. 

At Vercator, our goal is to help change how the mining industry works. Your ability to invest in future-proofed reality capture registration software will help you capitalise on new technological trends without continually changing workflows to cope. 

Additional reading: If you’re interested in how cloud-based registration is fundamental to transforming mining workflows, take a look at our eBook — Are You Ready For the Cloud?

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¹ Efficiency and safety in the mining industry catches up to other sectors with the help of digitalisation

² Industry issue: Data and the Mining Industry