The Internet of Underground Things

Rio Tinto mine

The one thing anyone in the mining industry knows is that it’s going to get harder. Mines will get deeper and less accessible. The ores excavated will be lower grade. The volume moved will be greater. And the environmental regulations will be stricter.

High commodity prices a few years ago meant that industry revenues stayed high using traditional methods, so there was little push for innovation. Yet, now with falling prices and increased competition, the industry has begun a process of transformation.

One of the major changes already affecting the industry is the introduction of connectivity into mining operations courtesy of the Internet of Things.

Much of the innovation is being driven by huge industry players like Caterpillar, Joy Global, and IBM, plus a slew of new technology entrants. High-profile, cutting-edge mines, including Rio Tinto’s open pit Pilbara mine in Western Australia, Dundee Precious Metals’ Chelopech gold and copper mine in Bulgaria, and Goldcorp’s Éléonore gold mine in Canada are pushing innovation and touting results.

Connectivity and near-real-time data is essential to success in the competitive mining market of the future. Two key areas where it’s already had an impact in operations are location tagging for people and equipment, and predictive maintenance.

It’s much easier to keep track of things in a mine with connectivity. A mine is a shifting, complex three-dimensional space, quite different from a shop floor, with constantly moving equipment and people. Using sensors, mines can monitor equipment and operational performance data such as electrical function, speed, acceleration, pressure and flow, temperature, position, vibration, and chemical compounds.

Many mines now connect worker’s helmets, along with every vehicle and piece of equipment, with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Signal strength at multiple wireless access points allows mine supervisors to know the location of every asset in 3D space (Dundee Precious Metals’ program is called “Taking the Lid Off”), to track mining progress, proactively move employees away from blasting sites, and know when workers and vehicles are in too-close proximity, a particular safety concern.

Aside from safety improvements, RFID tagging, along with associated sensors, allows for significant cost savings in ventilation. Knowledge of where every worker and vehicle is, which vehicles are in operation, and the ambient levels of toxic gasses such as carbon monoxide, allows mine supervisors to ensure adequate air supply to critical areas while decreasing ventilation to areas not currently in use. For a large mine, the savings can be over $1 million annually, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

But with all these new sensors, it is easy to overlook a classic one: the camera.

“The most obvious sensor we take for granted these days is one of sight,” says Hekkie Van Dyk, Smart Service Customer Value Manager at Joy Global. “We all have cameras in our pockets and use them daily. Likewise, our systems are also equipped with cameras. But ours range from normal sight/video to infrared, even to stereoscopic, which enables the machine to see in 3D.”

Mining equipment and vehicles are increasingly complex, sophisticated, and expensive – with large haul trucks typically costing $1.5 million, and ranging past $5 million. Such capital-intensive equipment requires operations to run without much slack, since keeping a $1.5 million truck as backup is too expensive. A disabled vehicle or piece of equipment has significant effects on mine productivity, making maintenance a matter of pressing concern.

There is a big push for predictive maintenance, and even the step beyond that, optimized performance. Near-real-time monitoring of the thousands of sensors on a modern vehicle or piece of equipment, feeding predictive algorithms based on historical knowledge of device failure modes and models of material strength and wear allow not only for maintenance to prevent failure, but constant tweaks to keep the machinery operating at a peak of efficiency.

Slight maladjustments can add costs across an entire fleet. For example, a common industry estimate is that 40 percent of tires at mine sites are up to 10 percent underinflated. A 10 percent underinflation can decrease tread life by 16 percent, which, given that haul truck tires are typically $50,000 each, with six to a vehicle, can add up. Add in the cost of the decreased fuel efficiency and this one piece of seemingly simple maintenance can have a large effect. Sensors and analysis can allow for every tire to be inflated to its optimum level, all the time.

Mining has been a relatively conservative industry, but immense change is coming, and already visible in a number of locations. Sensors and connectivity are transforming mine operations. The result will be increased safety, decreased cost, improved equipment uptime, and more efficient utilization of resources. Call it the Internet of Underground Things.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto

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