The penetration of technology and innovation in Indian mining operations has been slow as compared to other sectors. This is despite the fact that mining companies are constantly striving to implement the latest and most reliable and cost-effective automation technologies for their mines to ensure high productivity and safety. Recent advancement in technology, especially with the application of information technology (IT), has made it possible to identify areas for improving existing production at mines with reduced operational costs, and ensuring a higher level of safety of miners. When compared with global benchmarks, India’s mining projects have a long way to go with regard to IT and automation levels. Even best practices in India do not compare favourably with global standard practices.
Key trends in mining technology
With regard to the type of equipment, the mining industry is steadily moving towards larger capacity equipment. In opencast coal mines, the use of the shovel-dumper combination for overburden removal and coal winning is the new norm. In opencast metaliferrous mines as well, the shovel-dumper combination is common. In some projects, draglines are used for overburden removal and the shovel-dumper for coal extraction. Large capacity bucket wheel excavators have long been employed in lignite mines.
Surface miners, which are a part of continuous mining systems that load the overburden on to conveyors, are also being used. However, in India, surface miners are used along with pairs of front-end loaders and dumpers, which limit efficiency and productivity. Highwall mining has also been adopted in select mines of Central Coalfields Limited and Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL), to improve coal recovery from coal blocks.
The low contribution of underground mining operations continues to be a concern – it accounts for only 6-7 per cent of the country’s total mining output. This is partly due to technological challenges. Side-discharge loaders (SDLs) and load-haul-dump (LHD) loaders have been deployed in the country but their productivity is below par when compared to global benchmarks. The longwall mining experience too has been mixed with only a few success stories from Eastern Coalfields Limited and SCCL.
A more recent trend in mining technology has also been towards addressing the concerns of climate change and hence reducing the carbon footprint. The use of more energy efficient equipment and a reduction in diesel consumption are attempts in the right direction. Meanwhile, the present situation warrants investments in data analytics, which is almost non-existent in the mining space. Only about 1 per cent of the data generated from mining operations is utilised for further analysis. In fact, the remaining 99 per cent is now being termed as the new “unmined” resource, which, when brought online, will significantly aid in effective decision-making.
Recent technology initiatives
Mine safety is one of the biggest lacunas in the mining sector. The unusually high incidence of fatalities and injuries during mining activities has been on the rise. Coal India Limited (CIL), in particular, reported 38 fatal accidents with 56 fatalities and 113 serious accidents with 118 serious injuries in 2016. Hence, the government has announced a slew of measures to prevent accidental deaths in mines. Some of them are:
- The use of mechanised drilling, loading and transportation in place of manual loading and transportation at the coal face in a bid to reduce the exposure of miners to the risk of accidents and other health hazards.
- The installation of continuous environment monitoring systems in gassy coal mines to give forewarning of accumulation of inflammable gas, presence of noxious gases including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and a deficiency of oxygen in the mine atmosphere.
- The use of modern training aids such as simulators, 3D artificial intelligent audio-visuals and safety training programmes for managers and supervisors.
- Utilisation of high capacity machines in opencast coal mines to reduce traffic in mines and accidents in opencast operations.
According to reports, over 96,000 cases of illegal mining (for major and minor minerals) were reported across Indian states in 2016-17, a 13 per cent decline from the 110,476 cases in 2015-16. Maharashtra reported the highest number of such cases (31,173) in 2016-17, followed by Madhya Pradesh (13,880) and Andhra Pradesh (9,703). In a bid to curb illegal mining, the Ministry of Mines has launched the mining surveillance system (MSS) to track illegal mining activity via remote sensing technology. The MSS was developed by the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) and the Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics, in association with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The system will issue an alert regarding any illegal mining activity within 500 metres of the boundary of the mining lease area (for major minerals, including iron ore and bauxite). Thereafter, state officials will have a week’s time to take action. In MSS, cadastral maps of mining leases are scanned and georeferenced on to satellite maps and digitised by the IBM. The georeferenced mining leases are superimposed on remote sensing careens obtained from the National Remote Sensing Centre of CARTOSAT, one of India’s remote sensing satellites.
Players such as CIL are focusing on making the best use of the available technology. The company has ambitious plans of using GPS/ GPRS-based vehicle tracking systems to enhance productivity. CIL also deploys tools for e-auction, and e-procurement of goods and services. Meanwhile, in October 2016, MSTC Limited, one of the country’s e-commerce service providers, launched M3 Metal Mandi, a virtual market for metal transactions. The portal primarily aims to benefit micro, small and medium enterprises.
New technology solutions
Internet of things (IoT) and wireless sensor networks: IoT is increasingly becoming an integral part of many industries, as it presents massive opportunities with regard to efficiency gains. For the mining industry, it can enable mining companies to connect to, and collect and
exchange data from various software systems, devices, drives, belts, sensors, heavy earthmoving and mining equipment and other items embedded with electronics. It also enables firmware and network connectivity.
Artificial intelligence: While India’s mining sector is still far from adopting high-level mechanisation throughout the mining process, some further steps are being contemplated. In this regard, artificial intelligence and parallel processing can be the next steps for sector automation/mechanisation. This , however, will depend upon the willingness of the industry to adopt them. It may also be discouraged as it would impact employment levels.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in mining: UAVs or drones are being increasingly used in industries such as oil and gas. In the mining sector, these can be used to measure extraction volumes in open pit mining, computation of volumes, mapping, remote monitoring and planning, stability and safety inspections, and on-demand security surveillance. UAV-based surveying has many advantages over conventional surveying methods. It utilises less manpower and requires less time. It is faster and data processing is far more accurate. It also reduces operational costs.
Environment monitoring and video analytics: Technology solutions can be utilised to measure the emission levels of various gases (released as a by-product of mining operations). Technol-
ogies for monitoring air flow, pressure, vibrations, temperature of bearings in ventilation fans, etc., may also be adopted. These can also be utilised to ensure greater worker safety, as they can aid in alerting mine workers working in extreme environments to danger. Video/Image analytics based on image/video feeds captured underground can be used for key junction areas, blast/drill areas, etc.
Autonomous mining vehicles: Autonomous haulage translates into more material being moved efficiently and safely, thus creating a direct increase in productivity. This addresses the key challenge of decreasing ore grades by enhancing the productivity by 15-20 per cent as a result of autonomous truck usage. Autonomous trucks help in controlling the rise in energy costs due to better fuel efficiency. Also, autonomous mining vehicles improve the overall system interaction by incorporating visualisation and collaboration tools in one place.
Digital mining: Mining companies are coming up with a digital point of view to digitise the mining value chain. Organisations are embedding digital thinking in core processes. A digital mine involves asset (men/machine/material) tracking using Wi-Fi tags to ensure real-time visibility of operations, enables tele-remote
operations of loaders, automation of auxiliaries such as pumping stations, ventilation, substations, etc., and voice over internet protocol-based communications. Digital mining establishes a Wi-Fi network underground to improve safety and productivity of operations.
Corrections in the commodity cycle and the resulting drop in prices, it is feared, may again halt the long-drawn process of technology enhancement. However, mining companies need to realise that technology adoption is beneficial in the long run, not only in terms of productivity and output, but financially as well. While the trend towards greater application of continuous mining systems, larger-sized equipment and more energy efficient systems is sure to continue, automation is likely to become the more spectacular change in India in medium term. It may be anticipated that demand for the mining sector’s industrial IoT and new simulation and optimisation software will influence the industry and the use of remotely controlled equipment will be the most important development over the next five-ten years.