Today’s mining industry has reason to be optimistic, with the global appetite for increased connectivity, mobility, smart infrastructure and low-emissions transportation driving demand for metal resources. Following the adage, “If it is not grown, it is mined,” the mining sector is playing a starring role in building this futuristic society of tomorrow by providing steel for driverless cars, copper for mobile devices, and lithium, nickel, cobalt and vanadium for batteries.
Now more than ever, we’re seeing the advent of new technologies that can deliver on the promise of safeguarding health and safety while maximizing efficiency, productivity, enhanced collaboration and resilience. These tools will enable mining leaders to fulfill today’s demands while ensuring the long-term sustainability and profitability of their operations, transforming the way the industry operates and delivering value to surrounding communities and shareholders.
Advances in automation and robotics – from autonomous self-driving trucks to driverless trains, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning – are increasingly reducing risk to human life. Big Data and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – a combination of automation, Wi-Fi sensor technologies, cloud-based systems and data analytics – are helping mines gain higher levels of real-time situational awareness, improving operational efficiency and decreasing costs. Meanwhile, electric vehicles (EVs) and advancements in mobility hold promise for a lower-emission, more sustainable future.
Even as debate rages over driverless vehicles on public roads, driverless trucks, trains, drills and loaders are becoming more common in mines of the future. Mine operators are recognizing the benefits of automation, which continues to improve in capability while coming down in cost. With haulage ranking as one of a mine’s highest costs, and autonomous vehicles (AVs) offering productivity gains up to 30 percent, companies are taking heed as major manufactures such as Caterpillar, Hitachi and Komatsu continue to introduce new options in autonomous haulage.
Rio Tinto leads the charge with their “Mine of the Future” vison that embraces technology and automation. The company now relies on nearly all driverless trucks to explore for, mine and move iron ore at their mine sites in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Navigating via GPS technology and sensors, these trucks work alongside robotic rock drilling rigs to transport materials on-site.
The company has also introduced a fully automated train system known as “AutoHaul,” which bears the distinction as the world’s first heavy freight driverless train network. All these operations are powered by a centralized remote-operations control center located 750 miles away in Perth. Many other miners are now embracing technology in the development and operation of their mines.
Big Data & Analytics
Big Data and IIoT are also driving efficiency and transforming the way the mining industry operates. Placing smart devices in mines can collect and relay thousands of data points in real-time. This vast network of smart infrastructure – Wi-Fi sensor technologies, cloud-based systems and data analytics platforms – can deliver unprecedented levels of situational awareness, allowing operators to make quick, informed decisions and meet their growth and sustainability goals.
Having this enhanced knowledge allows both new and existing mines to proactively monitor, analyze, forecast and adjust on the fly to improve efficiency, prevent disruption, eliminate unnecessary waste, save costs and make smarter operational decisions.
Electric Vehicles & Mobility
Decarbonization is a growing priority as climate change remains top of mind, and the electrification of heavy fleet vehicles is only going to increase as the world moves away from combustion engines. Although EVs are becoming more popular among consumers and in mass transit, it’s still early days for mining, though new advancements in battery range and capacity hold promise for the future of EVs in mining.
Manufacturers are increasingly moving into the space. ETF Equipment out of Slovenia manufactures all-electric surface haul trucks, with future plans for motor graders and wheel loaders, while the German company GHH Fahrzeuge offers all-electric Load-Haul-Dump loaders (LHDs). Aside from the overall benefits in reducing energy consumption, these applications are particularly interesting when it comes to working underground where emissions would require additional ventilation.
Taking mobility a step further, interesting developments such as hyperloop technology could also play a role on mine sites in a few decades. Last year, Black & Veatch completed a feasibility study on Virgin Hyperloop One, a new high-speed mode of transportation that moves via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The system is fully autonomous, with no direct carbon emissions, and can move freight and people at airplane-speed over long distances.
These technologies may seem like a leap now, but considering the rate of technology adoption in our day-to-day lives – from the evolution of landline phones to sleek mobile devices, combustion engines to the sterile silence of the EV – it’s not such a stretch to expect to see these technologies play a critical role in transforming today’s mining industry, to build the mines of tomorrow.