Leveraging Technology: Digitalisation of mining operations

The mining industry has a key role to play in a developing country like India. In order to meet the growing demand in the country, it is essential to improve mining operations th­rough the introduction of new methods and technologies, resulting in better utilisation of en­ergy for the extraction of mineral resources. In line with Vision 2025, major reforms and ad­vancements have been been witnessed in the mining sector, including IT-based systems, wireless information systems and safety practices, automation and robotics – all of which are contributing to the modernisation of the industry. Since mining is a multi-disciplinary activity, it has a huge compass for IT and technology-en­abled services. Many of these technologies are growing in scope and variation, driving better performance and lower costs for mining companies. As mining becomes more intensive, the demand for mechanisation and highly productive, safe, efficient and cost-effective machinery is increasing.

AI/ML and automation

Emerging technologies such as blockchain, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), 5G connectivity and robotics have been applied to various mining engineering value chain activities that have significantly optimised efficiency, safety and sustainability in the extraction of mineral de­po-sits. Various private companies and governme­nt bodies are adopting these technologies to increase the operational efficiency of mines, reduce the carbon footprint, and manage costs in the mining process.

Companies such as Accenture and Infosys are partnering with mining enterprises to provide AI/ML, cognitive computing and AI-driven automation solutions to enhance digital control systems and programmable logic controllers to boost reliability and accuracy at mining sites. They are also combining robotic automation and industrial IoT to manage autonomous drill­ing systems and hauling fleets.

Vedanta Aluminium has also introduced robotic process automation (RPA) in its commercial function, becoming the first in India’s metal and mining industry to undertake hyper automation of the entire commercial process. The company deployed RPA in the business co­mmercial function to help enhance standardisation through optimal inventory management, proper aggregation of demand, improve productivity of employees and infuse significant agility in the ways of working.

Many state governments are transforming their conventional mining processes and shifting to technology adoption in the sector. The Odisha government implemented an IT-based mineral administration through a software application called Integrated Mines and Mine­ral Management System (i3MS). The Odi­sha ca­binet, in August 2022, further app­ro­ved fu­nds worth Rs 3.26 billion for the extension of the i3MS scheme for another five years till 2027.

WISSM, RFID monitoring and safety tracking

One of the biggest benefits of technology in the mining sector is improved efficiency. A key technology that is used in mining is workforce tracking, also known as wearable technolo­gy, which provides real-time monitoring and all­o­ws greater mining productivity. With this, miners can be managed more effectively and can be alerted about any potential incidents or dangers. In case of a disaster in an undergro­und mine, it is very difficult for the mine management to identify the people trapped, their number and exact location. Therefore, the identification and coding of miners are vital in underground mining in case of disasters as well as in normal operating conditions. The Wireless Information and Safety System for Mines (WISSM) consists of hardware devices and a radio frequency identification (RFID)-based application software, which can be prog­ra­m­med to act as a tag (end device), router or coordinator that enables them to form a mesh network. It uses a unified wireless mesh-networking infrastructure to locate, trace and manage mobile assets and people as well as monitor different environmental conditions using sensors.

From microsensors, recording digger operating pressures at the mine face, to the gigantic loads carried by high-tonnage payload dump trucks, a mine’s operational and senior managers all rely on digital hardware and software to monitor, report and record their mine’s performance in real time.

Electrification and electro-mobility

Electromobility is quickly replacing the reliance on diesel fuel, with mining equipment increasingly being powered by batteries rather than by diesel. Virtually every manufacturer of mining machinery and equipment is designing electrically powered models and bringing them to market at speed. The power of electrification has the potential to dramatically impact almost every part of the supply chain, right down to how industries mine for and collect the raw materials needed.

In order to overcome the challenges associated with diesel-powered equipment, Sand­vik Mining and Rock Technology has designed battery electric vehicle (EV) loaders and trucks around their electric driveline to make the system more agile. This equipment is de­signed to be battery electric, ground up. With its reduced emission and heating profile, electric mining equipment stands to change things for the better. These battery EVs have already been introduced in India in the form of trucks, loaders and rickshaws. While the economic and environmental improvements offered by electric mining equipment are already evident, the transition is still at the initial stages.

Drone-based surveillance

Today, many industries are adopting technological advancements such as drone technology, rather than conventional methods of surveying as they offer cost-effective, safe and quick aerial surveys for data collection and are very useful for industries like mining, which requires constant monitoring. As a part of mine automation, drones can help achieve many benefits for effective mine planning — conducting initial surveys, carrying out exploration activity, physical terrain mapping for segregation of land use, contour mapping, 3D modelling and terrain modelling. This apart, they can help in reclamation analysis by ortho-photography using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).

The centre is constantly introducing ame­nd­ments and reforms to ensure the safety of mine workers while maintaining efficiency. Ac­co­rding to the recent amendment to the Mine­ral Conser­vation and Development Rules, drone survey images of leased areas and up to 100 metres outside the lease boundary must be submitted annually by lessees with an annual excavation plan of at least 1 million to­nnes or a leased area of at least 50 hec­ta­res. High re­solution satellite images are re­quired from other remaining le­ssees. This will make not only mine planning pra­ctices more effici­ent but also mining operations safer and more closely monitored.

Furthermore, Mahanadi Coalfields Limited has introduced drone technology in coal mines for environmental monitoring, volume measurement and photogrammetric mapping for di­gi­talisation of the mining process. The technology has been introduced through a web-based portal, VIHANGAM, along with a drone and ground control system.

Challenges in mining

India’s rapidly growing population is creating a rising demand for energy and materials (E&M). The issues of land use, waste generation, grou­nd­water depletion, and pollution of air and wa­ter are other major factors creating concer­ns at the national level. The mining sector is also subjected to different formalities and clearances.  Moreover, there is a lack of investment and involvement by private enterprises in mineral exploration.

All this has led to an urgent need to transform the current production processes. The aim of optimising efficiency and sustainability in mining operations can only be achieved th­rough the intensive use of technology, including state-of-the-art digital solutions and new automation programmes.

Exploring future opportunities

Mining has always struggled with uncertainty and variability, from the resources in the gro­und to the stress on equipment to the weather. These dynamics are core to the industry’s operational performance. The key to the next era in mining is recognising that this situation is no longer inevitable. With the right in­vestments, miners have the opportunity to re­du­ce and, in some cases, eliminate the uncertainties and existing challenges.

As a whole, the mining sector is expected to adhere to clean and green operating procedures. Governments, civil society organisatio­ns, and regulators are increasing their dema­nd for sustainability compliance. In order to lower its impact on the planet, the Indian mining industry is also turning to innovative technologies. The country also needs to engage in local innovation and skill development in light of the growing use of new technology. Tech­nology can help make mining less hazardous to the environment.