Just as sophisticated telescopes have achieved methods of discerning the elemental makeup of a distant planet, so mining sensors are transforming the exploratory processes.

If you’re familiar with the mining industry, you know that worldwide, miners are experiencing unprecedented pressure. Commodity prices are dropping, while at the same time, yield and ore grade are declining. Opening further portions of existing mines adds layers of logistical complexity, while the development of new mines has become more time-consuming. The only logical response to these trends is to increase productivity — but mining is a mature industry, and there are limits to how quickly mechanical innovations will be developed. The revolution of digital technology — “digital transformation” — offers new possibilities for major operational efficiencies in the mining industry. Any single one of these technological assists will streamline some part of existing procedures. Implementing a networked set of them together makes for a truly new economic terrain for mining. Here’s a look at the nature of this transformation, together with an overview of how broadly it is taking hold.

A Global Transformation

Mining Journal notes that some of the world’s largest technology companies have been increasing their presence in the mining industry. A “surging demand for information and communication technologies” in mining systems has involved developers such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle in the U.S., as well as Sweden’s Hexagon, France’s Dassault Systemes, Australia’s Maptek and Germany’s Becker Mining Systems. The Journal’s analysis points out that while digital transformation in the industry includes big data and analytics, cloud-based services, and the industrial Internet of Things, “nothing will be more significant than the rate of progression of automation into the capital-intensive mobile mining fleet world, and expansion of remote operations centres with their increased reliance on connectivity both at the macro and mine-site levels.”

Connectivity Is Key

Connectivity can make the difference between life and death when an incident occurs. As mines are situated more and more remotely due to the need to access fresh resources, it becomes more challenging for workers to stay connected with managers, not to mention family and friends at home. This connectivity is essential, however, for the safety and well-being of employees who work at a remote site for weeks on end.

Learning From the Military

Some advanced communication technologies have sprung from the military, which has grappled for years with the need to connect with and scan remote corners of the globe. Geo-position devices allow you to track the movements of people and equipment, increasing productivity by making sure they are in their scheduled locations.

Planning, Design and Construction of Infrastructure

The initial costs of a mine site are enormous. Building Information Modeling (BIM) can identify potentially costly project delays with advanced 3D/4D modeling, before ground is even broken. High-resolution animated “fly-through” video clips provide incredibly realistic project reporting. The data yielded by these models are then integrated into the workflow process during all stages, from design to detailing to fabrication and construction. Once construction is under way, unmanned aerial vehicles can be deployed to detect problematic anomalies, heat areas in power networks, and other vital information, all in real time.

Supply Chain Improvements

Real-time data and dispatch information make a huge difference in the effective allocation of supply chain elements. In the mine pit, for example, traditional dispatch combines with smart algorithms to pare off inefficiencies from machine movements. Digital transformation can improve how supply chain decisions are made, detecting and resolving any scheduling conflicts.

Site Coordination

When you know the location and status of each piece of equipment in the complex multi-part organism that is a mine, you know whether they are being utilized as called for in your overall plan. This continuous insight enables you to change the conversation from monthly production to whether or not your plan is being carried out, and the variables that have to be compensated for in order to achieve all goals. Optimum use of informatics thus helps avoid silos and facilitates the free flow of information. A central operating center can coordinate the countless moving parts into one general efficiency, making decisions across the whole supply chain if necessary. One mining company has a remote operating center that controls 31 pits distributed among 15 mines, and it also remotely controls movement over four ports and about 1,000 miles of heavy haul railway.

IoT & Communications

When improved connections are integrated with sensor technology, then it’s like eliminating the barriers of distance and vision. Connected sensor technology is becoming more approachable and intuitive to use with each successive iteration. These solutions enable you to predict when critical parts for expensive machines will need maintenance. Automatically supplying parts (think Amazon Prime for heavy equipment) to a remote mine site can help your operation to avoid delays by minimizing down time, as well as health and safety risks.

Strengthening the Bond Between Human and Machine

The materials themselves have information to give, and the emerging technology termed the Internet of Things is perfectly suited to enable those materials to yield their information. Vast amounts of sensor data are now surging out from the actual rock face or vein, providing new ways to image the resources that are beyond physical or visual reach. Just as sophisticated telescopes have achieved methods of discerning the elemental makeup of a distant planet, so mining sensors are transforming the exploratory processes. Blasting can be optimized when you have a clearer understanding of what lies hidden.

Safety Improvements From IoT Technology

As miners look to automate exploration and production activities, IoT trends will likely drive further innovation. For example, in Western Australia’s Rio Tinto iron mine, the world’s largest fleet of driverless trucks handle all the hauling. These autonomous vehicles are controlled by remote operators, saving fuel as well as avoiding the need to put drivers out into hazardous conditions. Another example of IoT developments that have an impact on safety is wearables, or “smart clothing.” The sensors in these garments provide the ability to monitor a mine worker’s physical condition, as well as the safety of their immediate working environment.

Furthermore, robots can now perform operations that would be hazardous to a human being. This greatly improves productivity, because you’re not being forced to make decisions about sending miners into a questionable situation, and it saves the time needed to make that decision. This all adds up to new, more robust level of safety as well, since the computing power can also be applied to the stability of a particular environment or the buildup of unhealthy elements in the work area. Tele-remote controls and robotics are changing the way that managers think about risk in the mining industry, and the cost of risk mitigation is predictably dropping as a result.

Analytics, Data Science & Computing Power

Capturing raw data is only the first step in wielding the power of the digital transformation. The next steps include storing the data, making it accessible to the right people at the right time, and analyzing it. Finally, that analysis has to be communicated to those in decision-making positions, so they can move forward with a well-grounded strategy.

Your best approach is to embed big data analytics throughout your planning, exploration and production phases. Real-time visibility and tracking of assets can be compared against key production metrics. Exploration data is consolidated across prospective and active mines, and your decision-making can also incorporate predictive modeling that leverages other historical data (weather and geopolitical, for example) into investment decision making.

The Power of Reduced Uncertainty

Geological modeling has opened up a new world of possibilities. Now it’s possible to use model information about ore bodies together with drilling data from blast-holes and automated sampling. Data analytics lets you go from reams of raw information to clear strategies. You can create a feasible mine plan and steer clear of quality problems right from the start; you can foresee failures before they happen, reducing expensive downtime and equipment repair costs.

Combining the raw data that today’s sensors can gather together with the analytics that interpret them means that you don’t have to make expensive guesses anymore. You can cite the data behind a decision to move forward, while minimizing or eliminating face inspections and core logging.

New Relationships Emerge

One of the strengths of analytics is that it uncovers previously overlooked correlations and causations. Advanced analytics can generate insights about second- and third-order variables, revealing novel ways to increase yields.

Implementing Your System

Implementing digital transformation in your mining company requires an appropriate technology environment, as well as the expertise and organization needed to manage the new solutions. Physical technology for sensing and gathering information must be put in place, along with the associated mechanisms for responding to the adjustments and commands. The Internet of Things involves input and output, with an analytic mechanism at the center. Data must be able to flow readily across your sites, systems and operation units. Furthermore, your organization’s approach to solving problems must adjust to a new agile level of responsiveness, based on experimentation and outcomes. Finally, resilience and security become part of the equation when cloud-based and mobile data sharing are in use.

Digital transformation is about seeing what’s hidden and doing more with less. Network leverage means that the more you can systematize and automate your operations through the use of smart algorithms, the closer you get to the ideal model of a perfectly efficient automated mine. In the years to come, mining success will not be primarily based on how much material you can move out of the ground, but instead on how well you gather and analyze information in order to move what you have more efficiently.