The software evolution – impacts on the mining industry

by Ina King (Potgieter) October 10, 2019

Artificial intelligence and developments in Industry 4.0 are increasing the pace at which technology finds its way into our places of business, including the mining sector. South Africa and most of Africa are trailing the first world in implementing these technologies. The rationale in South Africa is attributable to the fear that half a million mining employees’ jobs are threatened.

This belief is driven by, among other factors, the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) estimation that autonomous machines would become the norm as soon as 2025. However, we must not lose sight of the primary advantages the software evolution brings to the mining industry – more efficient mining and, importantly, a lot less underground risk.

Some technologies have had a significant impact on the way mining is conducted, including automated drilling and tunnel boring systems, autonomous vehicles, smart sensors and drones. Automated drones are used for safety and surveillance in hazardous areas, asset management, photography, to stockpile inventory and conduct infrastructure inspections.

Adapt or ‘Die’

What does all this mean for South Africa and Africa? Simply put, mining has to adapt to global changes in order to benefit from the advantages inherent in the mining software evolution. These advantages include:

  • Increased Operational Efficiency: innovative data management platforms are creating better ways to manage, store and make sense of mining data. Artificial intelligence technology generates day-to-day data in much less time than before. Smart data and machine learning allows for better planning and resource management, and is used to improve operational efficiency, production workflow and mine safety.
  • Reduced Costs: using the latest cutting-edge satellite and imaging technology provides the ability to source minerals without the need for cost-intensive exploration. Additionally, by sharing geoscientific images, both travel and exploration costs are reduced.
  • Increased Sustainability: mining can be an environmentally destructive process when managed incorrectly. Technology has facilitated the development of environmentally friendly electro-chemical processes to extract gold from ore. This means that gold mining houses no longer need to use toxic chemicals for mineral processing.
  • Safety Ensured: the technology to assess underground air quality, fire and explosion risks has been augmented by current spatial data visualisation like 3D Modelling, Augmented Reality and Virtually Reality (VR). They provide mine management with the ability to view a mine remotely, but as if they were onsite. This allows them to plan for any safety concerns by allowing managers to experience working in a mine or developing a new mine without being in the field.

Robotics and driverless vehicles have allowed mines to extract ore from much deeper levels without any help from underground personnel. Not only does this negate any physically harmful risks to underground personnel, but it also has the potential to reduce the length of underground shifts, ultimately contributing to enhanced employee well-being.

Outside of the mine itself, sensor-based sorting is yet another technological initiative leading to increased mining productivity. This sorting method splits commercially valuable minerals from ore as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

Conclusion

Technology must be embraced. It is a means to achieving zero harm in mining and it is necessary to build mines in what is becoming the digital mining era. It is needed for efficient and real-time mining and can be used to train existing mine management in the skills necessary to undertake digital mining.

A management consultancy company based at the Mandela Mining Precinct in Johannesburg has developed an experiential mining game to help chief executives understand the constraints in their operations by creating a digital replica of their mines. Additionally, the University of Pretoria has the Kumba Virtual Reality Centre, which can simulate rock falls and other risky situations. It is used to train people to respond to these situations.

It would seem that the sky is the limit when it comes to technology and the mining industry. However, a balance must be struck so that the human element is not ultimately disempowered. Mining is labour intensive and relied upon as a means of income for hundreds of thousands of labourers. Should technology advance too swiftly, many of these jobs will become redundant. If we do not implement technological labour solutions to keep abreast of our international competitors, we stand the risk of losing investment into our mining industry.

Food for thought.

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