The mining industry is looking to a wave of technologies to predict – and respond to – an increasingly volatile future


As environmental disasters go, this one takes some beating. Last August, an accident at the Gold King mine in Colorado, US, sent wastewater spilling into the nearby Cement creek. But that’s not the full story.

The mine had been inactive for almost a century, since 1920. The wastewater was toxic, containing heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and deadly elements such as arsenic. The creek was a tributary of the Animas river, which is a key part of the massive Colorado river system. And the accident was caused by a team of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) personnel, who were attempting to add a tap to the mine’s tailing pond, specifically to prevent a disaster such as this from happening.

As the Gold King mine belched out its bright orange poison, sending 11.3 million litres of deadly toxins into the waterways of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation, a few questions were asked. Not least of these was why hadn’t the EPA seen the spill coming?

Theoretically, they could have. Mining technology has now reached a point where operators – and, of course, EPA workers – are able to send a robot into a site to take measurements and readings that would detect and predict potential disasters.

Speaking to Mining Decisions magazine last year, Van Zyl Brink of the CSIR explained: ‘One of the primary functions of a robot such as this would be to determine whether or not an environment is safe for humans to enter. There’s a process of sensing the stability of the rock mass, sensing the environment and monitoring the air. Basically, before humans go into the environment, robots will determine whether it is safe or not.’

Around the time of the Gold King mine spill, the International Data Corporation (IDC) issued a statement saying that ‘transformation through the forces of technology change and disruption is a significant dynamic only recently seen in the mining sector’.

The IDC statement continued: ‘The transfor-mation we are seeing, though, is not just about being able to see what is happening across the mine, but to create the ability to control and ultimately respond predictively.

‘The future of mining is to create the capability to manage the mine as a system – through an integrated web of technologies such as virtualisation, robotics, internet of things, sensors, connectivity and mobility – to command, control and respond.’

Writing for Mineweb, Magda Honey, IBM Natural Resources Centre of Excellence director for Africa, said there were many examples in the sector that showed the potential of data analytics. ‘This ability to generate useful business insights from huge amounts of external and internal data is just one area in which mines are beginning to leverage analytics.

‘Another is the ability to collaborate effectively. In particular, the use of social media to interact with business partners, employees and clients holds great potential. These channels would provide mines with a way to communicate directly with employees and members of the surrounding communities. Further, combining social media with analytics (social analytics), mines could start to generate deep insights based on what their stakeholders are saying and doing – insights that could be used to fine-tune operations or even change direction,’ wrote Honey.

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Mining technolgy has now reached a point where operators are able to send a robot into a site to take measurements and readings

‘In today’s lower-priced commodities environment, mines need far more actuate and predictive control in driving down costs and upping yields,’ says Shane Fitzpatrick, executive director of sales and marketing at Barloworld Equipment. ‘Technological investments need to match the current  and future mine plan, so they need to be flexible and adaptable, and have the ability to talk to other enterprise resource protocol processes.’

He says big data can play an important role in ‘managing mining operations as an overall system, in order to be able to interpret production and mineral processing data in near real-time’.

Fitzpatrick adds that new technologies – such as Caterpillar’s MineStar, a fleet management system catering for semi- and full automation as well as the EMSolutions suite, which enables online remote monitoring of machine health and utilisation – reflect this innovation.

Director of the Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems at the University of the Witwatersrand Declan Vogt is excited about the possibilities of new kinds of technology but remains grounded in the realities of what conditions are like in SA’s complex underground mines.

‘The grand promise of big data is that it gathers, processes and interprets vast amounts of information to provide a real-time snapshot of an environment. But at the moment the challenge in mining is actually getting that data,’ says Vogt.

‘There are a lot of people who are working on that part of the problem, but basically mine management doesn’t know what’s happening in their mines on a moment-to-moment basis. In surface mines they have a much better idea. But underground, in hard rock mines, that kind of measurement is only being done on a monthly basis.

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‘Combining social media with analytics, mines could generate insights based on what stakeholders are saying and doing’


‘Ironically, the factor that would make big data so useful – that is, the changing environment – is exactly what makes big data so hard to gather. When you’re mining an ore body, you don’t know today what it’s going to look like tomorrow.

‘Today’s ore blast will reveal what tomorrow’s mining needs to look like but that adaptability is not present in the system. So while big data could work a lot to improving the situation, giving mine management more foresight of what’s going to come, we need better sensing in order to enable that. But it’s coming slowly. It has been – and still remains – expensive and difficult to get as much instrumentation underground as you’d like,’ he says.

Vogt believes that one area in which technology holds the most promise is what’s known as ventilation on demand. ‘At the moment the mines are set up so that the whole mine is ventilated. So if you want to send men underground on a weekend to do a check in a far-off area, you would have to switch on an enormous ventilation system.

‘The idea for the future would be to mark off zones and ventilate each zone, so that if you go into an area, it’s ventilated; and if you don’t, it remains unventilated.’ However, he says: ‘If you have a factory, you can run out a network, and that’s it: the factory’s covered. But in a mine, if you run out a network today, in a month you will have areas that are beyond the end of the network.

‘So rolling out the infrastructure as you mine is an interesting challenge for IT, and traditionally there aren’t IT people working underground. We manage to run water and electricity and other utilities into newly mined areas, but we can’t roll out IT in quite the same way,’ says Vogt. That same challenge is partly the reason behind the slow implementation of intelligent robotics in SA’s mines.

In September 2015, Clearpath Robotics launched its latest fully autonomous mobile robot. Named OTTO, this ‘heavy-load material transporter’ can carry a massive 1 500 kg payload,moving freely and swiftly at a top speed of 7 kph, and intelligently to an accuracy of 2 cm or 3 cm by using 50m lasers to navigate its way around the factory floor.

However, it’s the last part – ‘factory floor’ – that’s the problem.

Vogt says: ‘A mine is the opposite of a factory. If you think of a standard factory robot, it sits in a fixed place and the car comes to it, and the robot does the welds all in exactly the same way. That’s relatively easy from a computational point of view.

‘Even if you think of the state-of-the-art free-roaming robots, they’re cute and impressive in their own way, but there’s no way they’re going to go down a mine anytime soon. The environment is too complex, too harsh and constantly changing.

‘We can see the route to the level of technology we need. It’s not happening yet because it’s still expensive, but as time passes we’ll see it.’

By Mark van Dijk
Image: Gallo/GettyImages