Mining companies in the country are gradually redefining their strategies and adopting new business models. A digital mine leverages the best of digital technology and internet of things (IoT), cloud or on-premises platforms to connect the mining value chain from mines to market and from sensors to the boardroom. Data is consolidated from siloed databases such as fleet management, despatch and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions. Once the data is consolidated, powerful analytics can be run to provide operational intelligence and trend analysis – all visualised on smart devices and in operation centres. This enables users to better understand the operation and embed productivity improvements through dynamic planning, scheduling and despatch, based on market economics.
Technology in operations
Automation, IoT and robotics are taking the mining sector to a new level. Advancements in gravity gradiometer technology and 3D imaging technologies have equipped companies with better mineral exploring, mapping and designing capabilities, while ensuring a targeted mining operation that minimises environmental damage. The technology enables geologists to create a 3D geological map combining all the surface mapping data, in addition to identifying precious metal ores in the mine location.
The designing capability allows companies to introduce a whole array of technologies, including automated drilling machines that run in sync with autonomous haulage systems that can be operated and monitored from a remote location. This allows companies to maximise efficiency, while decreasing variability and better identifying performance issues.
With IoT, automation is anticipated on a bigger scale, especially for preventive maintenance and better safety and performance parameter data. Artificial reality and virtual reality are expected to emerge as game changers in mine planning and implementation, and to help train human capital in simulated tough mine and high intensity operating conditions.
Technology firm ABB has launched ABB Ability MineOptimize to connect all electrification, automation and digital offerings to boost the government’s move towards digitalisation of mines, following the recent announcement of the new National Mineral Policy, 2019. ABB Ability MineOptimize will optimise all stages in the mine life cycle – from design and build to operation and service – of any open pit or underground mine and mineral processing plant. Also, in the current scenario, when power generatorsare combining renewables with thermal generation and battery storage, the aim is to increase efficiency while reducing the carbon footprint and overall costs. ABB Ability MineOptimize comprises a suite of digitally connected products, services and solutions that include state-of-the-art digital technologies for remote services, predictive maintenance tools as well as solutions for upgrades and retrofits.
Smart mining equipment
Progressive mining companies in the country have not only graduated to full mechanisation but are now using best-in-class intelligent equipment and services available globally, such as artificial intelligence (AI), IoT and unmanned automated underground mining, wherein the operator sitting in a control room at the surface or even in an office can run loaders, drills and trucks on autopilot or in operator-guided mode. These mining companies are aspiring to create digital underground mines in the near future.
Excavators are turning smart and are helping increase overall productivity. The smart systems range from intelligent machine control, telematics, global positioning system (GPS) and global navigation satellite system, to machine-to- machine talk. Caterpillar and Komatsu are at the forefront in terms of adopting smart technology in their excavators. Komatsu’s latest 2650CX hybrid shovel combines diesel and electric power to provide the best of both electric mining shovels and hydraulic excavators. The architecture with the hybrid switched reluctance motor drive facilitates multiple dig paths, redu-
ces the fuel required for digging, and extends reach and mobility. Caterpillar’s latest Hindustan 2021D wheel loader features higher lift height, pilot-operated hydraulics, a more powerful and fuel efficient engine, air-conditioning option and overall improved operator environment. Tech-
nologies such as industrial automation and control systems, simulator training for equipment handlers, equipment control and machine guidance, and control systems that are compatible with ERP software used by miners are seeing increasing adoption. These technologies help track the auxiliary and support equipment on a real-time basis and help improve efficiency of operations. In a bid to monitor and supervise haulage operations, GPS-enabled devices are attached to the fleet. Geotagging is gaining ground as companies look to bring in efficiency gains and check pilferage points.
Sustainable mining – meeting current needs with the minimum use of natural resources such as water and land and having an uncompromising attitude towards their quality before handing them to future generations – can be achieved only when miners take greater responsibility towards the environment. As a part of its environment protection activities, Hindalco Industries Limited has started to move towards ecological restoration in closed mines by efforts in scientific afforestation in addition to mine closure plans. A full-fledged in-house nursery spread over 5 acres with a 200,000 sapling capacity at its subsidiary Utkal Alumina has been developed to facilitate afforestation at location for ecological restoration. This helps Hindalco in active reclamation of excavated areas and, so far, it has been able to reclaim 453 hectares of land.
A few iron ore mines operated by Sandur Manganese and Iron Ores Limited, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the BKG Group and MSPL Limited in Karnataka are converting a mining or a dump area into a green cover. These companies have been maintaining their own nursery and making vermicompost to have a stock of plants and fertile soil for rehabilitation. To prevent air pollution, miners use water sprinklers to suppress the dust. To effectively use water, ERM adopted dry fog machinery (that spreads mist to settle dust and controls water usage). Meanwhile, MSPL does not use any groundwater and uses only that saved through rainwater harvesting to meet its requirements. The company has its own conveyor belt to transport the mine output from the hilltop that helps in reducing the dust pollution caused by truck movement to a great extent. The BKG Group mixes the waste dump with high quality ore (lowering ore quality) as one of the tools to effectively manage waste.
For a developing country like India, technological integration in operations will play a crucial role in its competitiveness in the international market, especially to endure price volatility. In addition to this, technologies for zero-waste or low-waste mining are the next step to increase sustainability. While the mining industry has evolved from its earlier unsustainable practices, it is time for stakeholders to come together and agree on acceptable globally established practices. Today, mining commitment includes extensive re-greening of the mined land and participation in the socio-economic development of the impacted communities.
Although the mining industry is aware of the benefits of digital transformation of mine operations and has made some investments, the pace of transformation is not comparable with the global mining industry. Most domestic miners are yet to adopt technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles for surveys/ground profiling and satellite GPS for smart blasting. They are yet to reach a stage at which autonomous driverless trucks equipped with remote sensors operate inside mines where AI is used to study the layout of the mines and to avoid vehicle collision. This is partly due to the limited availability of a tech-savvy workforce. Thus, companies need to invest in training their employees to enable a technological transformation throughout the organisation. Only a change in mindset will bring about the desired change in the sector.
Despite the huge potential and the need for smart technologies to be adopted, India lags behind in research and development with respect to AI and machine learning in the mining industry. However, with more AI research gradually taking place and many start-ups entering this space, the mining industry will see greater deployment of such technologies in the near future.