The adoption of digital and technology innovations can help in transforming key aspects of the mining process and unlocking the sector’s potential. Technologies and systems such as automation, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), etc. can help mining companies operate more efficiently, streamline costs, enhance safety and reduce their environmental footprint. Though there are examples of Indian companies investing in smart machines and digital technologies, the desired outcomes have not been fully achieved due to employee resistance towards digital transformation. Thus, prior to introducing complex technologies, it is imperative to train the workforce to become digitally smart.
Innovative mining technologies
The use of digital technologies offers a gamut of benefits to the mining industry. The sector is witnessing increased application of technologies across the value chain from mineral exploration to downstream sales and distribution.
Geospatial technology, which includes global positioning system (GPS), geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing, is increasingly being used as mining companies require huge volumes of location-based information. It helps companies in targeted mineral exploration, evaluating mining conditions, preparing mining plans, tracking mineral transport, improving facility management and assessing environmental impact. The GIS technology which collates, analyses and displays spatial data using digital mapping has helped in replacing paper surveys and allows mining professionals to track geographic variables that would otherwise have been missed. Light detection and ranging technology, a popular remote sensing method, has also gained traction and is being used for mine mapping and calculating ore volumes.
Process automation and robotics
Automation in the mining sector is becoming more important. The use of automation helps in managing standard and repetitive processes along with increasing accuracy and lowering costs. Many mining companies are not only automating their back office functions such as administration and finance but also other areas of the value chain such as automation of operations. The technology also leads to increased safety of workers who can operate the machines from a safe distance. Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones are being deployed in the country for surveying, measuring extraction volumes in open pit mining, seeking real-time updates on production progress and identifying potential hazards.
Virtual and augmented reality
Virtual and augmented reality (VAR) technology offers a significant change in the way things are done in the mining industry. More and more companies are relying on these technologies to improve safety and efficiency, and to drive innovation. VAR creates authentic mining conditions using 3D simulated images allowing users to experience the complex mining environment. Users can also control and interact with the 3D content, thus helping them understand real mining conditions. Virtual reality can also be used for better mining yields by improving blast and drill rates through the simulation of different patterns, thereby helping engineers in identifying what works best.
The use of technologies such as AI, IoT, big data and advanced analytics in the mining sector is manyfold. Though such technologies have been widely adopted by mining companies globally, their use in India remains limited. However, they certainly have significant potential for application and can help in creating mines that are smart and integrated.
Technologies such as AI and machine learning are being applied in the mining industry to increase efficiency through streamlining of operations, making faster and more accurate decisions, addressing environmental and safety concerns and predicting failures. AI can also help mining companies identify new and potentially valuable areas for mining through the use of pattern matching and predictive analytics.
The deployment of IoT solutions such as the use of sensors and mobile telemetry allow mining companies to gather real-time data, continuously monitor operations and improve overall efficiency. The technology can also help in preventing accidents as the sensors pick up real-time data and predict which equipment may be faulty or the site where issues may occur, and this allows for adjustments to be made before anything goes wrong.
Mining processes are complex and require the use of different equipment and technologies. As a result, mining companies generate huge sets of data. However, the use of this data for further analysis and decision-making is limited. Data analytics can be used at every stage of the mining process to spot inefficiencies, reduce delays, make better decisions and identify cost drivers.
Recent technology developments
Various initiatives are being taken by the government, the public sector and the private sector to increase operational efficiency, improve worker safety and reduce environmental damage through technology deployment. Some of them are as follows.
- For the first time in India, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) will use an ultra-modern remote sensing technology developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to map surface mineralogy. The Airborne Visible-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer – Next Generation will be used to locate minerals like lead, zinc, copper, platinum, diamond, gold and others. An MoU was signed last year between GSI and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s National Remote Sensing Centre with the objective of utilising the airborne hyper-spectral data to find surface signatures of mineralisation in 14 promising mineralised blocks.
- The Directorate of Geology and Mining, Uttar Pradesh, has taken up several technological measures to stop illegal mining activity in the state. All mining activity will now be carried out under surveillance of AI-based CCTV cameras and drones linked to a command centre in Lucknow. The state government has also decided to attach vehicle tracking systems to trucks ferrying minerals from mines. This will give an update to the command centre during entry and exit of vehicles from a mining area. Punjab and Bihar have also decided to curb illegal mining through the use of drones.
- Various initiatives have been taken by Coal India Limited (CIL) to improve the efficiency of mining operations. These include increased used of hydrostatic drilling, deployment of GPS-based vehicle tracking systems and radio frequency identification-based authentication systems. CIL also plans to use seismic survey technology to achieve high rates in exploration. The company has introduced mobile apps like Seva to benefit its customers including power sector customers, Uttam for monitoring coal quality by its customers, Khanan Prahari to check illegal coal mining and Coyla to monitor production and despatch data of all mines. Further, it is working to develop a virtual reality mine simulator, an underground trapped miner location system and an integrated system to monitor and control man and machine, to enhance safety and security in mines.
- Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) is working towards digitalisation of its mines to streamline efficiency and shore up productivity. It plans to implement an automated core scanning technology in the country, a highly sensitive technology, which can project rock and terrain properties along with the content of the ore. Further, HZL plans to adopt automatic voltage regulator wearables and ore body intelligence along with 3D laser scanning, introduce high speed Wi-Fi networks in underground mines, and deploy high bandwidth optic fibre, voice over internet protocol and other IP-based devices. The company is also developing an integrated analytics centre in Udaipur where data on production from mines, mills, smelters and power plants will be analysed in one place and the results and feedback will be sent to the operations department to optimise future operations.
- Tata Steel has introduced an IoT-based fleet management system at its flagship Namenda iron ore mines feeding its Jamshedpur steel mill. All dumpers at the Namenda mines are connected to this system. It has enabled the use of advanced analytics on the data being generated by the system on a real-time basis, capturing health and performance of heavy earthmoving machinery, thereby reducing operational costs and improving productivity. The system is under implementation at Joda and will be extended to the Bokaro mines. The company is also looking at autonomous operations of drills to improve accuracy and increase safety.
The way forward
Though the country’s mining sector is increasingly deploying digital solutions, the scale of adoption remains slow as compared to global counterparts. While big miners are making some headway with digital solutions, small- and medium-sized operators continue to use conventional methods. The industry must embrace digital solutions and improve the poor implementation track record to survive and thrive in the digital world. Further, the industry and government need to move towards sustainable mining by reducing the sector’s carbon footprint and adopting environment-friendly technologies.