Deep learning: How the mining industry got smart

Introduction and underground IoT

Recovering the planet’s natural resources is hard. It’s difficult, dangerous, and can be environmentally damaging. Cue an IT revolution, with smart communications, ‘extreme Wi-Fi‘ covering vast deserts, autonomous vehicles that extract vital rocks and minerals, and geofenced employees who receive warnings if they get close to a mine’s famously colossal big machinery.

Introduction and underground IoT

Recovering the planet’s natural resources is hard. It’s difficult, dangerous, and can be environmentally damaging. Cue an IT revolution, with smart communications, ‘extreme Wi-Fi‘ covering vast deserts, autonomous vehicles that extract vital rocks and minerals, and geofenced employees who receive warnings if they get close to a mine’s famously colossal big machinery.

There’s even a ‘smart bolt’ that creates an underground support structure which is classic Internet of Things. The final goal is the autonomous mine, where humans are completely removed from the mining process.

What is smart mining?

As with most industries, using the term ‘smart’ means increasing efficiency, though in mining there’s a vital added ingredient: human safety. “It’s about doing it smarter to reduce cost, lower emissions and increase productivity, while ensuring safety is paramount,” says Greg Smith, General Manager, Mining Support Group, Global Mining, Hitachi Construction Machinery.

Cue Hitachi’s ‘Smart Excavator’ project, which uses connectivity, big data analytics and more to work out everything from the optimal dig pattern at the coalface to the exact routing of vehicles (and soon, autonomous vehicles) to maximise energy efficiency. Mining is where big industry, big data and big money collide.

The underground IoT

Perhaps the most ingenious device so far for smart mines is the Smart Rockbolt that instantly creates an underground Internet of Things. Bolts are an everyday tool in mines; they’re used to prop up ceilings and walls during dynamiting. In a very literal sense, they hold the whole operation together. However, they’re also the main weak link, being easily damaged, meaning they can lose their load bearing capability and become liable to give way without warning, causing deadly collapsed tunnels and cavities.

Cue the Smart Rockbolt from EISLAB (Embedded Internet Systems Lab) at Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology (LTU), which has sensors to measure both vibrations and strain, and which can run for years on a single non-rechargeable battery cell. Link it via 4G or Wi-Fi to create a mesh network and a 24/7 safety monitoring system is born. This is potentially big, big business: the global mining industry uses 100,000,000 bolts every year.

Geofencing tech

Keeping workers away from dangerous equipment is important in all large-scale manufacturing plants, but in mines it’s imperative. Intel has been working on geofencing technology that integrates with a Bosch microclimate monitoring system, the sensors of which measure humidity, sound, temperature and gas levels. Any problems, and staff in the area get a text sent to their phone.

“We can geofence around equipment so the miner can get a warning on their phone not to enter an area because there’s heavy machinery working, or because the air quality is not good,” says Ophir Shabtay, Location Core DM, iCDG/WCS/CNV at Intel in Israel, who says that the same technology can be used for accurate indoor positioning. “A worker can also send an alert to the control centre asking for assistance.”

It’s also possible for the control centre to get real-time feedback from wearable devices on workers, such as blood pressure and heart rate.

Top Image Credit: Hitachi Construction

5G connectivity and autonomous vehicles
High times for Wi-Fi

Before you can do anything remotely smart, you need ultra-reliable connectivity. In the open copper and molybdenum mines of Chile’s Atacama Desert – home of the highest mountain range in the Americas – round-trips back to the mine’s central office block are very long. Up here at an altitude of a whopping 16,000ft, the atmosphere is dry and the temperature fluctuations incredible; for electronics, it’s like going to Mars.

Cue the development of a Cisco Unified Wireless Network of ruggedised routers that can cope with all of that, and give remote mining and construction workers ‘extreme Wi-Fi’ everywhere they go. Cisco claims that it’s saved 720 man-hours per month for field and construction engineers, and reduced both vehicle fuel expenses and employee fatigue. The same tech could one day be applied to all rural areas, especially those where hikers often get into trouble.

5G underground

As well as over vast, arid areas, mining companies need connectivity underground. Not just that, but if autonomous vehicles are to become a reality, 5G connectivity will be essential. Ericsson’s Pilot for Industrial Mobile Communication in Mining (PIMM) project at Sweden’s Boliden mine in Kankberg is investigating how to remotely control a 30-ton Volvo wheel loader.

Ericsson has set up a distributed radio network in the mine, with antennas arranged carefully to cope with the long underground tunnels and rough walls. For now, Ericsson is investigating how and when a radio signal gets interrupted by moving vehicles, and this tech will be used in Volvo vehicles later in 2016.

Autonomous vehicles

With the Wi-Fi and cellular side all sorted out, the big mines will be free to perfect the real prize; autonomous haulage, which is just a little more heavy-duty and dangerous than the early experiments with autonomous cars.

Hitachi has plans to offer just that, with its ambitious Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) scheduled to be ready by next year. Using fleet management software and hardware from Wenco Mining Systems, AHS will include an electric steering module inserted between the steering wheel and valve on dumper trucks, so that they can be controlled remotely.

When fully autonomous, the trucks will use digital maps to navigate around a mine, adhering to speed limits as they go, and using data from the on-board sensors to identify an exact location for dumping.

Hitachi’s goal is ‘centimetre accuracy’, which is also the aim of Rio Tinto’s concept of the ‘Mine of the future’. As well as autonomous haulage (Rio Tinto is already trialling 69 partially autonomous trucks at its Pilbara iron ore mine in Western Australia), it’s planning automated drilling and even a fully autonomous long distance railway called AutoHaul to get the ore to market.

There’s always concern that advances in technology, and in robotics especially, will ‘steal our jobs’ and make humans obsolete. When it comes to difficult and dangerous tasks like mining, automation seems the smart choice for safety, but it’s a lucrative one, too. If anyone was doubting its value, Future Market Insights (FMI) predicts that the smart mining market will top $13 billion (around £9 billion, or AU$17.5 billion) by 2020. No wonder there are so many tech firms at the coalface of smart mining.

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