Forming the backbone of the economy, the mining sector is a key driver of economic growth. Despite a rich resource base and a huge potential to drive growth, the domestic mining sector lags behind in terms of the technologies deployed and the use of advanced equipment. Further, there is also a need to minimise the damage caused to the environment by mining activities. Sustainable mining techniques are thus garnering attention. Against this backdrop, steps are being taken to deploy new technologies and better equipment. However, there is still a long road ahead for the mining sector to become completely advanced in terms of technology and equipment used.
New mining techniques
New, cutting-edge mining techniques such as digital mining and hybrid mining are gradually emerging to combat the issues associated with traditional mining techniques.
- Digital mining: Wi-Fi-enabled underground mines are being developed in advanced economies. Wi-Fi helps track underground equipment, execute remote operation of loaders, automate auxiliaries such as pumping stations and ventilation shafts, and undertake voice over internet protocol-based communication with workers, thus ensuring their safety. Miners are embedding digital thinking in the core processes of mine operations. GPS-enabled machinery is being used for mining and drones are being used for stack and remote inspection. Mining companies are also using wearable devices to track humans and equipment. They are also innovating a digital point of view (PoV) to digitalise the mining value chain. The digital PoV is an entirely digital canvas which maps productivity throughout the mining process and increases operational effeciency.
- Using trackless equipment and drones: Trackless equipment is being increasingly used by miners to increase safety and efficiency at the mines. The equipment uses proximity detection and collision avoidance systems to operate equipment and does not require any human intervention. Moreover, drones are being used to undertake mine site planning and health/compliance checks at the mines aerially. During the operations stage, this helps check slippages and monitor discrepancies in mine operations. They can also be used for carrying and detonating explosives. The process of using drones for digital mapping and visualisation involves obtaining XYZ coordinates of every surface point for mine planning, using the coordinates for 3D modelling, visualisation and estimating possible resource extraction, assisting in planning and positioning utilities and equipment, and finally visualising the entire mine using drone-based mapping.
- Hybrid mining: This is a mining method which is generally used for extraction of precious metals such as platinum. Under this, under-ground mining methods are used along with conventional manual methods for extraction using hand-held equipment in addition to machines. This method is also useful for mines where the topography does not permit extensive use of machines.
- Micro-explosives: They can be used to avert the danger of fires caused by blasting of hard rocks using explosives. Micro-explosives when deployed with computer-assisted design and timing help control the fragment size of the ore, thus resulting in time as well as cost savings.
- Automated drill rigs: They are a good solution for excavation involving hard rocks. In particular, battery-operated drill rigs are noteworthy as they are faster and more precise as compared to manually operated equipment. They also have lower maintenance costs provided they are supplemented with rapid chargers or replaceable batteries. Further, they do not generate toxic fumes. They are efficient at drilling blast patterns and can make cutting easier when coupled with the latest cutters or preconditioning equipment.
- Self-driving ore carriers: Ore carriers such as above-ground earth movers and underground ore carriers have the capability of working throughout the day. Hence, people can be eliminated from dangerous sites and these carriers can be used instead. When fitted with radar and laser scanners, they can even navigate their way in dark areas. Global mining corporation Rio Tinto is in the process of developing automated ore trains. Further, electric vehicles can also help in mining above as well as below ground.
Technologies in use
A number of technology initiatives have been taken by various players in the mining sector. Besides improving productivity, these initiatives also assist in increasing mining activity and reducing illegal mining. The initiatives taken include:
- The National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) has deployed advanced software such as Surpac, Whittle and Mine Scheduling for conducting mine planning and pit optimisation.
- Another initiative is the launch of a geographic information system-based Coal Mine Surveillance and Management System that will help curb illegal mining activities. Through the application, sites where unauthorised mining is taking place can be detected with the help of digital maps. These digital 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.
- Another mobile application, Khan Prahari, has been introduced to report illegal coal mining activity such as rat hole mining, pilferage, etc. Through the mobile application, geotagged photographs can be uploaded along with textual information directly to the system. Hence, both satellite data and feed-in information can be used to capture unauthorised mining activities and this will be automatically directed to the nodal officers for suitable action.
Sustainable mining techniques
With increasing global concerns with regard to reducing the carbon footprint of mining activity, India’s mining industry has begun to focus on it as well. For instance, Coal India Limited (CIL) is in advanced stages of undertaking coal bed methane extraction and underground coal gasification. NMDC has taken a number of initiatives for sustainable mining:
- In-pit sumps for harvesting of rainwater have been created in the bottommost trenches of the mine for natural resource conservation and increasing the ground water level. This assists in avoiding contamination in and around natural water sources from surface run-off.
- Ore processing is conducted in dry circuit which helps in mineral conservation, prevents contamination of natural water resources of the surrounding areas and decreases water requirement of the project.
- Local grass species have been planted on eroded land so as to prevent soil erosion during the monsoons.
- Subgrade ore, low grade ore and waste and rejects are stacked separately enabling future use.
- Optimisation of lead distance of dumpers for hauling of ore and waste helps in fuel conservation and increases production with fewer resources.
- Exploration activities are carried out systematically within the lease area in a grid pattern to help define the ore body boundary. Conceptual pit limits are then designed to avoid rehandling or relocating of dumps/ infrastructure.
Use of heavy equipment
Over the past decade, mining equipment has increased steadily in size and complexity due to growing mechanisation. With infrastructure development at the forefront and revised CIL’s target of 1 billion tonnes of coal production by 2025-26, mining activities are bound to increase in terms of scale. With regard to equipment, mining companies are steadily moving towards large-size equipment to expand their scale of operations and to overcome manpower shortages. For instance, large capacity bucket wheel excavators are used for lignite mining and dump trucks of about 400 tonnes payload capacity are being designed for enhanced mining operations. For opencast mining, surface miners and a shovel and dumper combination are preferred as they are highly efficient and cost-effective. CIL too uses surface miners, and, in 2017-18, it produced about 47 per cent of its coal output (266 mt) using this equipment. Draglines and dozers are other equipment deployed to remove overburden earth in surface mining.
Future of mines
The future of mines looks promising if the efforts to integrate mining and technology are made along with ensuring environment protection. Three important components in the mining sector in the coming years will be artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and internet of things (IoT).
Going forward, mining companies must adapt and adopt AI in their journey to digital maturity, so as to be more productive and efficient. AI-powered robotic devices can perform core operational activities such as drilling, blasting, loading and hauling. Machine learning has numerous use cases in mining. It can be used for the purpose of optimising blasting operations. Coupled with IoT, it can be employed to manage haul truck movements. IoT can potentially change the way miners operate over the next decade. The technology involves connecting equipment, vehicle fleets, and people based on radio frequency identification and sensor technologies. In India, the use of digital technologies in the mining sector has slowly evolved with the deployment of plant automation systems, GPS, mine planning systems, etc. and, more recently, cloud computing. Significant benefits have already been realised but much more can be done with a holistic approach. As the Indian mining industry moves into the digital age, technology-enabled solutions will become a necessity for its survival and growth.