User-friendly automated machine health monitoring systems are available today that require literally no prior expertise. Sensors can perform all the necessary monitoring, while alarm thresholds are automatically set and adjusted via a self-learning mode. (Photo: Schaeffler AG)

The latest generation of sensors and wireless networking products and services enables real-time monitoring of environmental conditions, equipment performance and worker health, reducing accidents and downtime. These advancements also help to provide accurate data on ore quality and quantity, leading to more sustainable and profitable operations.

By Russell A. Carter, Contributing Editor

Miners regularly encounter complex challenges that range from on-site geological, weather, labor and supply concerns; to corporate resource limitations; ESG commitments and other global economic and social issues. They need information to make both immediate and long-term informed decisions – preferably based on data that’s as up to date as possible and in a form that’s quickly and conveniently usable. 

Although the industry has vastly improved its information-technology proficiency over the past decade, it’s still climbing the steepest part of the learning curve that leads to cost-effective digitalization. And, as mining companies shed noncore assets and obligations in an ongoing effort to cut costs and improve productivity, most will come face-to-face with a series of data-management choices, the outcome of which could either improve or degrade their future business competitiveness. One of the most basic questions: Do we design our own data platform or use a commercial product that meets most of our needs?

Many choose to go the commercial route. Just recently, for example, global miner Gold Fields announced that it had installed a comprehensive digital platform from ABB to coordinate production scheduling and execution across its Granny Smith mine in Western Australia. 

Rob Derries, Unit Manager, Innovation and Technology, Gold Fields Australia, explained that, “As a mine operator, we face a broad range of planning and operational challenges in hard-to-predict environments. We are committed to building on our people’s capability and experience by working with technology innovators to bring in the tools and systems to better manage this balance. It also allows our people to move into more highly skilled roles and tasks.” 

According to ABB, the mine’s workforce, plus all fixed and mobile equipment, will be connected, optimizing resource usage and allowing the production plans to be implemented more effectively. ‘What-if’ scenario analysis and re-planning will help teams to take informed decisions. 

ABB said its Operations Management System (OMS) integrates short-interval control and closed-loop scheduling into the same digital platform, connecting mine planning and operations – including design, maintenance, workforce, equipment and services – in real time. It enables operators to plan production scheduling, automate activities and quickly react to disturbances that may impede production. 

The flip side of the coin: Companies that decide to keep data-platform development in-house expect to reap the benefits of a customized solution. In a blog post published earlier this year, Sean Hunter, director of product development at data-management specialist Eclipse Mining Technologies, described the possible outcome: “There’s often an assumption that there is a competitive advantage to be gained from creating a technology or system that is unique to a company. Miners are, after all, exceptional in the operations they run and the challenges and opportunities they face.

“But time and trial have proven that this is not always the case. In reality, many underestimate not only the initial cost, skills and changes required to create a useful data platform, but also the ongoing operational implications. If longevity is the name of the game, then focusing effort and resources on a project that is outside of the business’ core interests may not be the optimal move.”

In either case, it’s likely that the data collected from a company’s physical assets will come from various sensors installed in locations ranging from underground, inside or outside surface facilities, mounted on drones flying overhead, or even in orbital space. Here’s a quick glimpse of just a few recent product introductions that illustrate the expanding scope of sensor-based capabilities throughout the mining process.

Sandvik launched xCell Cyclops, a convergence system for ground support in underground mining intended to provide wireless, continuous, remote and real-time measurement of ground movements.

The company pointed out that underground mining is generally trending deeper, leading to more difficult and complex ground conditions for mine operators to manage. The new xCell Cyclops convergence system, said Sandvik, enables remote assessment of rock mass behavior, which leads to safer, more efficient and cost-effective ground support and optimized ground rehabilitation.

“The new xCell Cyclops convergence system is a major technological leap forward to achieve a safer, more sustainable way of digitally monitoring convergence in underground mining,” said Peter Young, product manager for bolting at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions’ Ground Support Division. “Through the wireless and connected devices and a user-friendly online platform, customers can easily adapt their individual setup and track any changes in the mine’s ground conditions.”

According to the company, the retrofittable design of xCell Cyclops sensors makes them easy to install directly onto existing rock bolts. They are battery-powered, utilize accurate laser measurements and can be connected via both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, providing operators with real-time access to data, built-in notifications and alarms. This setup reduces the need for manual work and inspections in the mine, reducing costs and improving safety. 

“This product is designed for the modern mine,” Young said. “Manual measuring methods for managing ground support are now a thing of the past. With this new sensor system, it is possible to understand, analyze and forecast ground movements remotely.”

Sandvik is offering the system on a subscription basis with three levels – Basic, Silver and Gold – with the number of users at a site and devices in remote mode varying across the levels. Local service is included in all three levels, and remote service is included in the Gold package.

Earlier this year, Australia-based NextOre announced that testing had been completed on its newest and largest analyzer – a model intended for scanning haul-truck loads that employs the same magnetic resonance technology, patented by CSIRO, that is already in use on conveyor belts at some of the world’s largest copper mines for sensing and bulk sorting. 

NextOre said the new scanner will be used to measure the grade of copper ore carried in 120- to 200-metric ton payload trucks, for the purpose of eliminating mis-assigned trucks and maximizing metal production. The truck analyzer will be used to support real-time, quantitative mine control, detecting the quality of ore carried in trucks as it is mined, eliminating both accidental losses of valuable minerals to waste and the processing of barren material. In addition to improving the efficiency of metal production, the company said the scanner’s capabilities help to enable significant reductions in fuel, water, electricity and chemical consumption while also reducing the quantity of wet tailings for each ton of copper produced. 

Data management experts generally agree that there’s no lack of sensor types, capabilities or cost categories to choose from, but at the core of any successfully digitized mine is a workable plan for managing the massive volume of data these devices can generate. 

Sandvik says its xCell Cyclops convergence sensor system enables remote assessment of rock mass behavior, providing a real-time measurement of ground movement. (Photo: Sandvik)

Listing the Risks

The EY “Top 10 business risks and opportunities for mining and metals in 2024” report released in October points out that cybersecurity has returned to its list for the first time since 2020, as companies experience increased attacks due to a more complex threat landscape that spans both IT and OT. The survey also highlighted a growing concern from miners around intellectual property, as they broaden their thinking from cyber threats being a technology problem to a business risk. Only 40% of mining and metals boards reported confidence that they understand the biggest cyber threats facing their organization, according to the report.

And yet, a variety of sources suggest miners are acutely aware of the value of actionable data in their operations plans and corporate strategy; however, many companies still lack an effective data management policy or platform – and some companies appear to be noticeably better at formulating data management strategies that lead to bottom-line improvements.

As we reported in September (see Miners Still Struggle to Make Data-driven Decisions), one recent survey indicated that eight in 10 geoprofessionals in mining saw data management as of high or critical importance for their organization, and said they spent 27% of their time on data – but a third of respondents said they lacked the information they needed to make crucial data-driven decisions. The survey, sponsored by geoscience solutions provider Seequent, found that, specifically within the mining industry, 61% of respondents said their companies do not have a data management framework that is viewed as vital, with 53% planning to create one within the next three years. Only 26% said they were “very ready” to leverage the cloud, with security and cost cited as the main factors.

NextOre, an Australian company whose flagship product is an on-belt magnetic resonance (MR) analyzer used in high-throughput bulk ore sorting systems, has developed an MRI-based truck payload scanner aimed at helping mines improve the economics of their operations by measuring the grade of ore on individual truckloads at the earliest possible point in the mining sequence. (Photo: NextOre)

Another study, published by technology intelligence firm ABI Research, attempted to determine whether there is a correlation between a mining firm’s utilization of digital technologies and its bottom line. ABI Research said it examined the extent that six of the largest mining companies (Anglo American, ArcelorMittal, BHP Billiton, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and Vale) are deploying digital technologies in their operations and contrasted these findings with the firm’s financial results. While most of these global miners have singular, notable digital initiatives, BHP Billiton emerged from the study as one of the more effective managers of its digital resources.

Michael Larner, Industrial and Manufacturing Research Director at ABI Research, explained, “The exercise highlights that some mining firms are more digitally mature than others, and in the case of BHP Billiton, data analytics is being utilized to support operations in real-time and underpinning efforts to improve safety and the mine’s overall capacity.” 

One example of BHP’s activity in this area is its announced collaboration with Microsoft to use artificial intelligence and machine learning for the aim of improving copper recovery at Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine. By using real-time plant data from the concentrators in combination with AI-based recommendations from Microsoft’s Azure platform, concentrator operators will have the ability to adjust operational variables that affect ore processing and grade recovery.

In another area, BHP found a way to improve the blast cone sampling procedure used for grade control at various sites. The process formerly required workers to move across uneven ground as they perfomed highly repetitive manual tasks, including digging and lifting samples of drilled material weighing roughly 5 kg (11 lb). Other significant risks to personnel who operate in these environments includie heat-related illnesses, repetitive strain injuries and terrain risks such as voids and wall failures. 

To help address these risks, BHP developed, in partnership with technology developer Sorden and CSIRO, a blast hole assay tool (BHAT) – a neutron logging tool that emits neutrons into the area surrounding the blast hole wall.  The neutrons are converted to gammas, which are captured by the tool and converted into multi-element geochemical assays, delivering real-time, multi-element geochemical assays. The BHAT uses data analytics and automation to replace manual tasks associated with collecting blast cone samples, while a semi-automated logging truck ensures the operator does not need to leave the truck and be exposed to the risks identified above. The BHAT and logging trucks undergo regular calibration and maintenance to ensure quality assurance and control, with the data continuously monitored across various time horizons (daily, weekly and monthly).

The company said implementation of the BHAT and use of semi-automatic logging trucks led to a change in the work environment from manual and repetitive digging and shoveling to operators driving and working in air-conditioned and ergonomic vehicles. The shift reduced manual handling injuries associated with manual blast cone sampling. BHP now owns a fleet of FG tools that can be used either for resource evaluation or bench grade control.

BHP is also one of several major miners, including Gold Fields and the former OZ Minerals, now part of BHP, using Swedish company Orexplore’s core-scanning technology, which enables users to “see through the core” in less than 15 minutes and create digital models through the Insight software platform. And BHP, along with Anglo American, South 32 and Glencore, has employed OreSense, developed by Australian company Plotlogic. OreSense combines LiDAR and hyperspectral imaging technology with advanced machine learning algorithms to deliver accurate ore characterization. The technology is available in a variety of configurations that Plotlogic can tailor to meet specific requirements. BHP’s use of OreSense reportedly allowed the company to extend the life of its Yandi iron ore operation in Western Australia’s Pilbara region by five years.

Gearing Up for the Smart Mine

As the industry’s interest in smart mining technologies gains momentum, industry vendors and even technical consultancy companies are bolstering their sensor-related product and service offerings through innovation and acquisition. Here’s a brief rundown of recent developments:

Epiroc, for example, acquired Mining Tag S.A., a Chilean company that provides sensor-based solutions for monitoring, automation and process improvement in mining applications. At the time of the acquisition, Mining Tag said it had carried out more than 15 implemented projects at small- and large-scale mines and had installed 18,000 of its sensors across sites in Chile and Perú for equipment and personnel monitoring. The company said its technology could provide 100% reliable readings for targets moving at up to 31 mph (50 km/h).

More recently, Epiroc announced that, together with the robotics and AI team at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden and the technology company Algoryx, it had initiated the ReNAM project to boost the development of autonomous mining. The project will utilize simulations and apply state-of-the-art research on Epiroc’s underground mining machines – such as the company’s recently-introduced Scooptram ST14 SG underground loader – to enable the next level of autonomy and safety. Epiroc said the Scooptram ST14 SG is designed with automation in mind and is equipped with a new generation of sensor towers that improve system uptime by 10% compared to the previous model.

The ReNAM project will develop and validate advanced sensor technology and autonomous control technology for mining vehicles. The project has received funding from the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova and will run from 2023 to the end of 2025.

Initially, realistic digital twins of mining machines and surroundings will be modelled in a physics-based simulation environment. Once the sensor- and AI-equipped virtual mining machines have been developed to the point where they can solve tasks safely and reliably in the digitally simulated environment, the next step will involve transferring the developed control systems to Epiroc’s machines to perform the same tasks in an actual test mine.

The goal of the project is to develop and validate two use cases that can lay a foundation for future robotics research and contribute to Epiroc’s future development of commercial products with fully developed machine autonomy.

Directional core drilling is an emerging technique for resource exploration that requires powerful sensors capable of withstanding high temperatures, shock and vibration. Mining-tech developer IMDEX, which purchased the Norwegian drilling-services/borehole survey technology company Devico earlier this year, said it is now looking to grow the market for the technology, which it claims enables more focused and efficient exploration with decreased costs and lower environmental impact. 

IMDEX’s chief operating officer, Shaun Southwell, said the transition to directional core drilling was inevitable as exploration costs increased in the search for mineral deposits that are deeper and in more remote and unexplored regions.

“Resource companies need to take every advantage available to them so having the capacity to hit more targets with less exploration drilling delivers real quantifiable savings,” Southwell said. “Directional core drilling is one of the fastest growing markets as companies seek precision in their drilling programs.”

According to IMDEX, time and cost savings from 20%–50% are typical compared to conventional drilling, and the technology is well-suited in the search for geologically complex critical minerals, particularly with the capacity to drill multiple secondary drill holes from an initial mother hole and/or overcome natural deviation to hit intended targets.

IMDEX’a general manager for Europe, Erlend Olso, said that while directional core drilling added some short-term costs, resource companies were recognizing the greater overall savings. “Using directional core drilling provides precision and efficiency in exploration; you can hit more targets with a lot less meters drilled,” Olso said.

Anglo American’s principal geology and resource estimator, Janne Siikaluoma, pointed to Devico’s directional core drilling technology for delivering results that would not otherwise have been possible at its Sakatti copper, nickel and PGE deposit in Finland, 150 km (90 miles) from the Arctic Circle.

“AA Sakatti Mining Oy has used Devico’s services in the Sakatti Cu-Ni-PGE project since 2017,” Siikaluoma said. “Devico’s services and especially directional core drilling has been an important factor to be able to conduct accurate diamond drilling programs in deep and complex deposits located in environmentally sensitive areas like Sakatti.

“Additionally, the successful drilling program enabled us to achieve a constant 25-m drilling pattern in certain key areas of the deposit with the required 5-m target precision (up to 800 m depth) which would have not been possible by any other practical means.”

Infrastructure monitoring specialist Worldsensing is acquiring engineering software developer Bentley Systems’ Thread connectivity device business to expand its hardware portfolio offerings. The acquisition is intended to give Worldsensing the ability to offer new options to its customers where adaptive sensor integrations or active sensor management are a key requirement. Thread offers broadband sensor connectivity to uniquely connect dynamic, high-power, or high-speed sensors and stream sensor data to the cloud for analysis. Thread is a fully autonomous sensor connectivity device with optional integrated 4G/LTE cellular modem, wireless mesh networking, and battery pack in a weather resistant enclosure. Each broadband device also serves as a gateway for wireless smart sensors. 

Worldsensing also said that it is enhancing its support for the mining industry with an offering that provides seamless data acquisition and transmission underground to help improve risk management. The new monitoring suite includes an IoT network technology that has been specifically developed for underground environments. As an enhancement to Worldsensing’s existing portfolio, a repeater device now extends the reach of the company’s LoRa IoT configuration with tree topology. This repeater expands the network range and data transmission to almost 10 km underground when sending data in three hops.

Worldsensing’s LoRa network runs on a sub-gigahertz radio frequency. In underground environments and as part of the LoRa Tree network, repeaters can retransmit data from nodes to the gateway in a multi-hop setup. Each repeater can reach a gateway up to several kilometers away in a single hop provided the route is near a straight line. In comparison, medium-range mesh networks which use sub-gigahertz frequency can reach a gateway some hundred meters away in a single hop. Short-range mesh networks based on 2.4-gigahertz setups can obtain single-hop ranges of some meters underground.

Sensor towers on Epiroc’s new Scooptram ST14 SG underground loader offer design features intended to improve system uptime in autonomous operations, including “air blades” that help repel dust and moisture, thus extending the interval between sensor cleanings. (Photo: Epiroc)

The company claims that even in more complex underground environments, the LoRa tree topology still outperforms wireless alternatives by allowing continuous data flow with a range of hundreds of meters. Overall, according to Worldsensing, this long-range underground technology leads to cost reductions and time savings given that comparably fewer devices are needed to create the monitoring network which leads to lower maintenance to keep the network running and data flowing.

Boart Longyear announced earlier this year that its Geological Data Services division would henceforth operate as a separate entity called Veracio, a subsidiary powered by Boart Longyear’s GeologicalData Services integrated technology platform, which includes structural geology (core orientation), down-hole survey (magnetic and gyro), drilling optimization (real-time drilling data) and orebody analysis (onsite real-time geochemistry).

Veracio, according to Boart Longyear, can apply key digital sensing platforms and AI that helps miners “move beyond the borehole and see the entire orebody in fine detail.” Major components include:

• AI solutions that improve and automate improved understanding of the earth and orebodies, and deliver improved solutions for mining activities across the value chain;

• Data capture and intelligence platforms including TruScan, an in-field sample sensing platform; TruSub, a rod string system; and TruProbe, which allows for driller deployable downhole sensing without a logging truck; and

• A foundational, integrated cloud platform that gives teams anywhere in the world access to these technologies, enabling them to access orebody data in near-real time, at a higher definition, and with lower sampling error.

Veracio then announced that it planned to acquire the Swedish company Minalyze to provide a unique combination of Veracio’s AI and advanced analytics solutions and Minalyze’s geological data visualization technology. Minalyze has developed a line of scanning instruments for core samples and software for the visualization of geological data. The company said its patented Minalyzer CS scanner and cloud-based Minalogger software are designed for digitizing large volumes of drilling samples and generating high-resolution and consistent data through fast, non-destructive collection of multiple datasets. 

Hatch, a global engineering, project management, and professional services firm, partnered with Flyscan, developers of an airborne asset threat detection technology. Together, Hatch and Flyscan will collaborate to develop additional applications for Flyscan’s core products to solve challenges facing Hatch’s clients in the metals, energy and infrastructure sectors.

Flyscan’s mission is to help energy companies and all operators of long linear critical infrastructure to better protect their assets, the public, and the environment. Its airborne detection technology, coupled with the ability to process complex data collection, enables the company to automate detection and report multiple potential threats that can affect high-value assets and everything that surrounds it.

Hatch said it plans to work closely with Flyscan to explore further opportunities in monitoring linear infrastructure and other assets. Hatch and Flyscan will leverage their skillsets to develop or enhance existing solutions, including asset data storage and data harmonization, risk prediction and mitigation, and predictive maintenance.

Robert Francki, Hatch’s global managing director, Energy, add commented, “We have been impressed with Flyscan’s remote sensing and visual detection platform and believe we could work together to improve their technology.”

Overcoming the Obstacles

AspenTech, a major supplier of industrial asset-management software, recently published an infographic that, among other items, listed the top five reasons why organizations say they haven’t expanded their use of technology to achieve corporate objectives. A lack of certainty regarding return on investment was number one on the list, followed closely by vendor ability to support, maintain and deliver services. Rounding out the list were concerns about implementation time requirements, a company’s ability or desire to manage and execute change, and simply being too busy with other activities to devote the necessary time to technological matters.

Getting a desired return on investment often simply hinges on choosing the most appropriate technology from the right vendor. For a useful discussion of vendor options and services that might lead to rapid ROI for companies interested in enhancing their predictive maintenance capabilities – and by doing so, reduce unplanned downtime and costs – via low-power electronics and wireless technologies, check out our Operating Strategies section in this issue (Mining Equipment Maintenance: It’s a Hard Rock Life, pp. 46-47).

One example of how miners can apply a specific technology as a highly useful piece of a network puzzle – without the need of deep in-house technical experience or the hassle of prolonged, painstaking setup – was recently provided by Kevin Holcomb, technical marketing engineer at Cisco, who explained the company’s LoRaWAN (long-range wide-area network) solution for connecting IoT sensors and endpoints at relatively low costs.

For those unfamiliar with the technology, he explained that LoRaWAN operates globally in unlicensed 800–900 MHz ISM bands. It is available either in a stand-alone configuration or as an integral part of the Cisco Industrial Asset Vision solution – what Holcomb describes as a “quick, out of the box method to use LoRaWAN without the end user actually having to understand everything about LoRaWAN.”

“One LoRaWAN gateway can handle thousands of sensors, so you get a lot of density of coverage” with it, he noted. “But it’s not for streaming video or file transfers or anything like that. It’s really low bandwidth, made for little pieces of information that happen every once in a while. Maybe you need a temperature reading every fifteen minutes, or a vibration reading once an hour – that’s the kind of data we’re looking at here.”

One of the main benefits provided by that low data rate include low power consumption. LoRaWAN sensors are usually battery powered and can last up to ten years before the batteries need to be replaced, according to Holcomb.

Holcomb said that Cisco, after becoming a founding member of the LoRa Alliance, now has more than 500 LoRaWAN customers in more than 60 countries. “All wireless technologies have their place – applications where they ‘shine,’ and others where they don’t do as well. LoRaWAN can fill in some of these gaps and provide long-range coverage and long battery life.” 

Cisco offers an IP67 outdoor-rated gateway and intends to soon release a plug-in module for its IR 1101 router that, when installed, turns the router into a LoRaWAN gateway. It also offers a ‘common packet forwarder,’ which allows the gateway to interoperate with many other network server vendor products, according to Holcomb.

He listed a few common use cases for the technology, such as:

• Tracking general assets, such as light plants or comms trailers;

• Air quality monitoring;

• Cable management – using a third-party sensor that monitors location, shock and energy status; or

• Monitoring physical security for assets such as storage buildings, etc., that may not have their own security system, or access monitoring of controlled areas such as battery compartments or tanks, for example.

Holcomb said Cisco’s Industrial Asset vision platform puts all elements of the LoRaWAN technology under one curated, cloud-managed application. “We’ve tried to craft the solution in such a way that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert on LoRaWAN to use it effectively. The main advantage of the cloud solution, for those who need it, is you are looking ‘at a single pane of glass’ for all your sensor-equipped assets and locations that are being monitored. 

“We provide simple reporting and flexible alerting so that, say, when something leaves a geofenced area or a temperature reading is too high, alerts can be sent out through email or to a mobile device.” 

These notifications, said Holcomb, can be structured to follow an escalation path. “Suppose a temperature reading is too high. You can set up the system to notify a certain person, and if it keeps climbing, it will then notify someone else.” It’s all done via templates that eliminate busywork. “You don’t have to remember who gets notified or how – e-mail or SMS – for each sensor. You just install the unit and the template, and all of that detail magically gets pushed through the sensor” as part of the Industrial Asset Vision solution.