With the demand for critical minerals for the clean energy transition surging, the World Bank predicts a 500% increase in their production by 2050. For the mining industry, this means unprecedented growth. But it also faces a plethora of internal and external challenges. Internally, a scarcity of skilled labour has led mining companies to adopt automation and digitalisation to improve operations. Externally, fluctuations in global resource prices affect the industry, requiring it to adapt quickly to meet diverse mineral extraction demands. In response to these constant changes, mining operations are proactively embracing digital transformation, leveraging technologies such as automation, unmanned systems, and AI for image recognition to enhance operational efficiency and safety.
Advanced technologies for enhanced operations
A Canadian iron mine, for example, has introduced automated mining vehicles and smart shovels equipped with advanced X-ray fluorescence (XRF) sensors and wireless connectivity, significantly speeding up on-site ore identification and sorting processes. The image recognition system helps guide the vehicles and dispatch them based on ore sorting results, boosting operational efficiency. Moreover, the mining site uses IIoT technology to connect a variety of equipment and vehicles, facilitating seamless data sharing and collaboration. This real-time access to critical data empowers mining vehicle fleets, allowing them to run smoothly in the mining field. Meanwhile, the use of robotic dogs in terrain reconnaissance is helping a South African gold mine to plan appropriate mining paths, mitigating risks and ensuring safety.
Connectivity across mine sites
Transmitting and analysing large volumes of data between equipment and systems is crucial; but in minefields, ensuring seamless connectivity between humans and machines, as well as between machines, is challenging.
Communication issues that modern mining operations must prioritise include the following:
• Ensuring stable connectivity: Reliable mining operations require a stable communication network. Obstacles are introduced by challenging minefield conditions such as dust, extreme temperatures, vibration and signal interference. To tackle these issues, resilient connectivity with rapid failover redundancy, seamless roaming, and reliable products are needed to minimise hidden maintenance costs.
• Seamlessly integrating information: Mining operations require the integration of multiple subsystems for collaboration. The diverse equipment and sensors used in mining often run on different protocols like Modbus, MQTT and ProfiNet. Hence, the seamless integration of communication systems is essential for efficient data acquisition, data sharing and interoperability between systems.
• Visualising communication networks: On large mining sites with limited personnel, ensuring uninterrupted communication for thousands of connected devices is challenging. To overcome this, modern mining operations use visualisation techniques to monitor and manage wired and wireless communication devices remotely in real time. This minimises malfunctions, improves equipment maintenance, and enhances operational efficiency.
• Establishing flexible architecture: Scalable infrastructure is the key to meeting future growth demands. As the number of mining and imaging devices increases, communication infrastructure must be expandable to accommodate these growing needs. The mining site should consider reserving sufficient bandwidth, assessing network expansion feasibility, implementing efficient tiered management, and integrating edge and cloud technologies for future scalability.
• Network and cybersecurity: As mining companies interconnect devices and transmit data to remote central control centres, they inevitably face cybersecurity threats. To address security concerns from the control room to the OT field site, it is important to protect the network, strengthen cybersecurity capabilities, and use secure devices based on the IEC 62443 standard.
In conclusion, the mining industry’s digital transformation journey is not without its hurdles. By harnessing the power of technology and addressing communication challenges head on, modern mining operations can improve their efficiency and safety. Through this transformative process, the potential of tomorrow’s resources can be fully unleashed, ushering in a new era of mining excellence.
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