The Indian mining sector has been a slow mover with regard to technology adoption vis-à-vis other sectors of the economy such as oil and gas. The sector is afflicted by issues such as illegal mining and fatalities at mines. While there has been focus on increasing mechanisation to reduce manpower requirements, the sector is still highly labour intensive. Automation in mining operations is not taking place at the desired pace. Thus, there lies vast potential for solutions such as digital/smart mining and asset management/predictive maintenance, waiting to be explored.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are being increasingly used in various areas including the defence sector. In the mining sector, UAV-based surveying has many advantages over conventional surveying methods. It utilises less manpower and requires less time. It also reduces operational costs. Coal India Limited (CIL) currently uses drones for survey blocks and preparing mining and expansion plans. It plans to check illegal mining and pilferage with the use of drone technology as well. A pilot project was undertaken at CIL’s subsidiary, Central Coalfields’ Topa mine, where drones tracked sources of illegal mining as well as the route being used to take away the pilfered coal. Similarly, the Tamil Nadu government is planning to use drones to determine the exact quantum of minerals quarried from licensed sites through satellites in a bid to prevent illegal mining.
Advancements in exploration
There is a need for a paradigm shift from present exploration methods to new technologies. Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Limited, in 2018, deployed specialised equipment (Vibroseis) and analytical software to undertake exploration. Vibroseis is a truck-mounted system that uses a large oscillating mass to inject a range of frequencies into the earth. It helps estimate the density of the underground matter, helping miners ascertain the possibility of deposits till a depth of at least 800 metres. Indian coal is typically found at depths ranging between 300 metres and 600 metres.
Over the years, mechanisation has become an important strategy in the design and operation of modern mines. The objectives of mine mechanisation are to improve safety and working conditions and enhance mine productivity. CIL announced a switch to mechanised transportation of coal through piped conveyor belts at its large mines by 2023-24, replacing the existing road movement of the dry fuel. Piped conveyor belt transportation is a covered system for coal movement that promotes environment safety and prevents possible coal pilferage. The system is already operational in some of CIL’s mines. Mechanisedtransportation will be implemented at 35 of CIL’s coal projects, each with a production capacity of 4 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) and above.
Higher equipment requirement
CIL has set an ambitious target of 1 billion tonnes (bt) of coal production by 2023-24. In order to achieve this, CIL and its subsidiaries will need heavy mining equipment to ramp up production in large mines, thus leading to higher capex requirements. The demand for mining equipment such as draglines, bucket wheel excavators, in-pit crushing and conveying
systems, high capacity rear dumpers, high capacity electric rope shovels and hydraulic excavators, crawler dozers, rotary blast hole drills, motor graders, surface miners, and continuous miners is on the rise.
Analytics and digital mining
Organisations are embedding digital thinking in their core processes. For instance, Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL), a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, is aiming to make its flagship SindesarKhurd and RampuraAgucha sites among the most advanced digital mines in the world. Vedanta has recently inaugurated the Hindustan Zinc Collaboration Centre, in partnership with OSIsoft and ABB, to improve efficiency, safety and sustainability while enhancing value across HZL’s operations. HZL is using the OSI-process information system to bring all operating data (related to mining, smelting and the power plant) on to one platform that will eventually be integrated with SAP. The idea is to digitally integrate HZL’s employees, original equipment manufacturers and several outsourced business partners at the two mines. This will allow the company to undertake real-time asset tracking, automated scheduling and task management.
Globally, advanced use cases of deep learning techniques, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things have helped the mining industry. Despite their huge potential, India lags behind in the research and deployment of AI and machine learning in mining operations. With the entry of new-age start-ups in the country’s fledgling AI ecosystem, the time is ripe for the mining industry to embrace advanced technological solutions to enhance productivity and become “data efficient”.