From safety and maintenance to exploration and autonomous vehicles and drills, mining companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize processes rapidly. With this new technology, however, comes an ever-growing need for a workforce who can navigate these new systems. Thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an interdisciplinary team at the University of Nevada, Reno, (UNR) has committed to graduating six doctoral and four master’s degree students who will address several challenges related to major safety and health issues in mining operations.

“Future mine engineers need to understand emerging technology like AI, drones and big data,” said Javad Sattarvand, UNR College of Science assistant professor of mining engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “We claim creating excellence in the workforce is the missing part of the chain, which would make mining engineers more aware of health and safety issues of the future.”

Sattarvand said this project will help elevate the safety of mines.

“Failure is inevitable in any mine,” Sattarvand said. “The path to safer and healthier mining operations crosses only through development of an academic human resource capacity with a greater understanding of emerging technological infrastructures.”

These technological infrastructures include AI, Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing, robotics, teleoperation, immersive technologies (Virtual/Augmented Reality), drones and mobile crowdsourcing.

Joining Sattarvand on this project is a group of multidisciplinary professionals from three colleges at the university: the College of Business, the College of Engineering and the College of Science. Co-investigators include Bahram Parvin, professor, College of Engineering; George Danko, professor, College of Science; Amir Talaei-Khoei, assistant professor, College of Business; and Bahrooz Abbasi, assistant professor, College of Science. Also on the project as a subcontractor is Sebnem Duzgun, professor, Colorado School of Mines.

“This is a great example of interdisciplinary cooperation to solve real issues,” University President Marc Johnson said.

While not committing to one single project, this capacity-building grant is looking to address multiple problems that exist within the mining industry. With the help of their industrial partners — Clean Air, Freeport McMoRan, Howden, Kinross Gold Corp., Komatsu, Newmont  Goldcorp, Orica, RESPEC, Sandvik and Value — six major missions were chosen for the project, each aimed at developing capacities in multiple emerging technological fields.

“Having these companies on board shows that they, too, are finding a missing piece in the workforce,” Sattarvand, said. “Each industrial partner is a key element to allowing for this project to work. In fact, the big data team of Freeport and the artificial intelligence team of Vale have added an invaluable partnership to this proposal.”

The six sub-projects of the proposed Artificially Intelligent Mining systems are:

  1. Automated Rockfall Risk Alert System for Open-Pit Mines aims at automating and enhancing the highwall failure of open-pit mines and involves drones, AI and big data. Industrial partners on this project include Kinross Gold Corp., Newmont  Goldcorp and Freeport.
  2. Tailing Instability Risk Alert System will create an automated monitoring system for tailing dams of mines and involves drones, AI and big data. Industrial partners on this project include Freeport, Kinross Gold Corp., Newmont  Goldcorp and Vale.
  3. Explosive Energy Distribution Optimization System will generate a customized charging for blast holes to accommodate drilling errors and involves drones, AI and big data. Industrial partners on this project include Freeport, Kinross Gold Corp., Newmont  Goldcorp and Orica.
  4. Comprehensive Intelligent Exposure Monitoring System will eliminate the need for personal exposure monitoring units and involves mobile crowdsources, AI and Internet of Things. Industrial partners on this project include CleanAir, Kinross Gold Corp., Newmont  Goldcorp and RESPEC.
  5. Immersive Teleoperation of Mining Machines will enhance the productivity and safety of teleoperations of mining machines and involves virtual and augmented reality, robotics and teleoperation and AI. Industrial partners on this project include Kinross Gold Corp., Komatsu, Newmont  Goldcorp and Sandvik.
  6. Simulation-based Smart Evacuation of Underground Mines will improve the effectiveness of mine evacuation protocols using smartwatches and involves mobile crowdsourcing, AIO and big data. Industrial partners on this project include Howden, Kinross Gold Corp. and Newmont  Goldcorp.

“Now that we have the data, capability and computing power to process a number of existing problems in the mining industry, interdisciplinary projects like this have become straightforward,” said Amir Talaei-Khoei, assistant professor in the College of Business Department of Information Systems, and co-principal investigator. “Javad is an exceptional mining expert. In addition, he himself is IT savvy and understands the benefit to connecting more IT savvy people with mining. This interdisciplinary approach can help solve some of the ongoing safety and health concerns that are often seen in mines. His vision for this multifaceted project really helped bring it all together.”