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.
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.