Changing Dynamics: Gradual shift towards digital mining

Gradual shift towards digital mining

Digital transformation and the adoption of smart technologies has become a priority agenda of every sector. Mining companies too, are slowly turning towards cost-effective digital and automated technologies for their mines to ensure high productivity and safety. This technology transformation is taking place around four key areas – robotics and automatic hardware, digitally enabled workforce, information technology (IT)-based integrated enterprise platforms, and next-generation technology solutions. The adoption of these technologies has helped mining companies identify gaps in production processes, thereby optimising operations. Despite the advantage, the level of technology deployment is yet to mature fully as several challenges in terms of cost and training come in the way of large-scale adoption.

Recent technology initiatives

For improving mining activities, curbing illegal mining and improving working conditions, a number of advanced and automated technology initiatives have been taken by companies and the government. These initiatives do not just increase productivity but are also cost efficient and environment friendly. Some of these are:

  • A 205 tonne electric drive rear dump truck (Model BH205-E) was launched by BEML Limited in September 2018. This indigenously developed truck is eco-friendly as it eliminates the consumption of transmission oil, final drive oil and brake cooling oil, thereby reducing the environmental impact over its life cycle. Also, its electrical engine offers superior performance and reliability in taking up mining in hard rock areas.
  • Another initiative is the launch of a geographic information system (GIS)-based coal mine surveillance and management system (CMSMS) that will help curb illegal mining activities. Through the application, sites where unauthorised mining is practised can be detected with the help of digital maps. The maps outline the leasehold boundary of all the allocated coal mines and the surveillance system uses satellite data to detect changes and extensions in the lease area.
  • A mobile application – Khan Prahari – has been introduced to report any illegal coal mining activity such as rat hole mining, pilferage, etc. Through the mobile app, geo-tagged photographs can be uploaded along with textual information directly to the system. Hence, both satellite data and feed-in information will be used to capture unauthorised mining activities that will automatically be directed to the nodal officers for suitable action.
  • Players such as Coal India Limited (CIL) are focused on improving their mining operations by adopting innovative technologies in mine planning. For instance, CIL has increased use of hydrostatic drilling with polycrystalline diamond bits and also plans to use 2D/3D seismic survey technology to achieve a high rate of success in exploration. In addition, the company has elaborate plans to adopt advanced technologies across its various mining activities. These include the deployment of the latest underground communication technology (leaky feeders, wireless) and tracking systems based on radio frequency identification (RFID), Wi-Fi, optic fibre, GIS and through-the-earth signalling; and laser survey technology for output measurement;. It also plans to introduce operator-independent truck dispatch systems and vehicle tracking systems using global positioning system (GPS)/general packet radio service and geo-fencing; and monitoring systems using laser scanners and radars.

New technology trends

The deployment of innovative technologies and continuing research and development are important elements for sustained growth in the mining sector. However, volatility in commodity prices puts pressure on the profit margins of mining companies. This creates the need to deploy smart technology solutions such as internet of things and unmanned vehicles to optimise mining operations. While some smart technologies have already penetrated the sector, others are yet to be used.

  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP) system: An ERP system is an IT-based system that is integrated with different platforms to capture data of business activities. It helps companies synergise their operational processes for effective decision-making and also enables monitoring of workflow on a real-time basis. CIL too opted for this system to collect information related to input costs, production, logistics and coal movement. This will help the company establish solutions for strategic resource development, resource and reserves estimation, mine planning, and improved methods of extraction.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones: Conventional surveying methods in mining are being replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles or drones for accurate mine planning, measuring extraction volumes in open pit mining, computing volumes and for health/ compliance checks. The Gujarat government introduced a similar technology called Trinetra, a night vision drone, to check illegal mining of minerals near riverbeds in the state. CIL also tested drone-based sensors at the Rajrappa and Topa mining projects to monitor land reclamation and identify sites of illegal mining respectively. The Telangana government too is exploring the use of drone technology to carry out surveillance of mining exploration to reduce any slippages and monitor discrepancies in mine operations.
  • Asset monitoring: Pilferage and theft are persistent in the mining industry, leading to significant losses. As a result, smart monitoring technologies such as RFID tags and GPS on trucks are being deployed for better asset monitoring. For example, NMDC Limited has implemented a mine transport surveillance system (MTSS – KHADAN-CHOUKSI) at the Donimalai complex for monitoring coal transportation. The system has seven integrated modules including GPS-RFID-based tracking, mine periphery surveillance, wireless networking, CCTV surveillance, among others. CIL and Essel Mining and Industries Limited have also adopted asset tracking systems to increase their efficiency.
  • Spatial technology: Spatial technology is also being used to identify potential coal blocks for exploration and other mining activities. This remote sensing technology was recently inaugurated by NMDC to generate real-time digital maps. For this, NMDC had entered into an MoU with the National Remote Sensing Centre (Indian Space Research Organisation) to promote satellite-based geological mapping and multidisciplinary exploration of iron, diamond and other mineral deposits. A few potential iron ore blocks have also been identified in Madhya Pradesh using Cartosat-2 and Aster Data.
  • Virtual technology: Virtual technology like digital modelling and simulation is another path-breaking innovation in the mining industry. It provides users with a live virtual mining environment in 3D, allowing them to experience a prototype mine environment. One such virtual reality mine simulator is being established by CIL with the help of the Safety in Mines Testing and Research Station, Department of Natural Resources, Government of Queensland, Australia, for simulating advanced mining technology and a hazardous coal mine environment.

Another trend in mining technology is the uptake of eco-friendly mining methods to reduce pollution levels and enhance safety of workers. For instance, Tata Steel’s iron ore mine quarries located in the Keonjhar district of Odisha use fixed water sprinklers, a dry fog system, and wet drilling methods in the mining area to eliminate dust pollution. Further, eco-friendly surface miners and continuous miners (for underground mining) that are free from blasting and drilling are being deployed for mining. Indian mining companies are now gradually moving towards the adoption of automation and technology to help their operations, albeit at a slow pace. For example, Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) is increasingly engaging with Atlas Copco to increase mechanisation and automation at its Rampura Agucha mine. HZL believes that automation will increase the level of safety and precision at the mine. This will in turn increase productivity and make the entire operation more cost effective.

The way forward

India’s mining sector is still far from adopting high-level mechanisation throughout the mining process. Some further steps need to be taken to help achieve efficiency at every stage of the mining process, from exploration, extraction, transportation, to ore processing and shipment. In this regard, artificial intelligence and parallel processing can be the next steps for the automation of the sector. Deployment, however, will depend upon how willing the industry is to adopt them. Data analysis will also play a big role at various stages of mining operations. However, India’s mining sector currently does not have efficient data handling, data capturing and data analysis capabilities. Data generated at various mining stages is not included in the final decision-making which should be the practice. Further, collaboration with global technology providers has become the need of the hour to achieve international standards in mining practices. With regard to digital mining, technologies such as robotics, big data, wearable technology, plant automation, etc., will have significant benefits for the Indian mining industry and help shape its future.