Is the Mine of the Future here now or something to expect in 2030?

What technologies are most likely to impact ROI between now and 2030?


The natural resource sector has been talking about the Mine of the Future for years now. It’s actually a pretty vague descriptor for a complex concept. We wanted to take a few moments to discuss what this really means, examine progress, and look at some of the technologies that leading companies in the sector are implementing to improve their operations.

As we see it, there are 3 big themes that are shaping the future of mining:

Number one. Automated systems are already driving increased productivity.

Number two. New technologies are enhancing the discovery and quantification of deposits.

Number three. Systems that offer real time analysis are expanding efficiency and profitability.

So what’s next, and how can we continue to push innovation to its limits?

Sensory Savings

Sensors across mine sites provide critical information
(Artists impression – Sukari open pit mine)

When it comes to integrating new technologies into mining operations, although the cost of implementation can be high, the financial return is clear. Sources predict that using smart sensors on mine sites could equate to savings of more than USD $34 billion in the next 5 years. Sensor use would improve equipment utilization, reduce equipment failures or downtime, and even facilitate predictive maintenance.

Other technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used to detect hazards like toxic gases, dust, and radiation on site. This comes in the form of pre-installed monitoring stations that inspect worksites ahead of mine personnel and use AI to drive robots and sensors. These systems could trigger alarms, warn workers, and close affected areas to prevent further exposure to potential hazards.

Vancouver-based Teck Resources has implemented AI/Machine Learning sensors into its operations since 2017. ShovelSense™ sensors were implemented in their Highland Valley Copper Operations in British Columbia. The sensors were mounted onto shovels to provide real-time data to determine whether a load should be sent to processing; quickly identifying rock and valuable ore. In addition to this, they have deployed remotely-controlled, virtual twin cab for their dozers which ensure operator safety in areas that are unsafe for workers to be on the ground.

Teck is also deploying machine learning models at Highland Valley and its models suggest it will be able to reduce power consumption, improve recoveries and better predict process outcomes.

Equally, in Brazil, AI has been used to predict rail fractures on the Carajas and Vitoria-Minas railroads. This initiative has helped reduce the occurrence of fractures by up to 85%, which has allegedly saved Vale $7 million per year.

Data is, and always has been, a big deal.

Nick Facey

Data is, and always has been, a big deal. If mining companies can better understand their own data, and have a a digital infrastructure in place, they will be better equipped to analyze and optimize their assets throughout the value chain. Inevitably they can also provide a means to visualize data to empower their frontline workers.

This thinking is embraced on a daily basis in the broader energy sector at companies such as Enbridge and Suncor, who are looking to new technology such as augmented reality to elevate and transform data, making it more digestible, and inevitably able to increase productivity and efficiency.

Across the energy and mining sectors, companies are working hard to keep operators and frontline workers safe. Canadian-based Hard-Line Solutions is creating automated, tele-operated, and remote-control technologies. Their products provide operators with increased safety, productivity, efficiency, and the ability to navigate tight and dangerous terrain that cannot be maneuvered by manned machinery.

The World Economic Forum predicts that automation and other technologies within the global mining industry could prevent more than 50,000 injuries, and in turn save up to 1,000 lives over the next decade.

Centamin’s Sukari open pit gold mine, Egypt

Automation and Navigation

With all the press that Uber, Google, and Tesla has received around autonomous cars, you might be surprised to hear that the mining industry is way ahead of Joe Public – Rio Tinto has been using autonomous haul trucks since 2008!

Built by Komatsu, their fleet uses a combination of GPS, radar, and LIDAR to completely independently navigate five sites in Western Australia. The autonomous trucks operate nearly 24/7 which drives increased output, productivity, and profits. Latest data suggests that the autonomous fleet outperforms the manned fleet by an average of 14% and has reduced operating costs by 13%, while still maintaining a similar rate of employment.

Caterpiller is also a major player, and has cited productivity benefits of up to 30% with its autonomous mining solutions. In addition, the company is also seeing real improvements in safety, in some cases up to a 90% reduction in safety incidents.

The ability to use autonomous haul trucks has also increased driver safety and productivity, including the potential to operate the mine remotely in the event personnel safety was in jeopardy. According to BDO, automation in mining is dramatically reducing the number of mining accidents each year (tied to human interaction with equipment)..

….investment will improve efficiencies by 35%

Tom Palmer, Newmont Corporation President & CEO

Rio’s rival, BHP Billiton has reduced costs by close to 20% after deploying autonomous haul trucks at its Jimblebar iron ore mine in Western Australia. Newmont Corporation also recently announced that it will be launching a $150-million autonomous hauling system at their Boddington operation in 2021. This will be the world’s first open pit gold mine to use autonomous hauling trucks. With a more controlled and efficient haulage operation, Newmont Corporation President and CEO, Tom Palmer predicts that the investment will improve efficiencies by 35%.

Newmont was one of the earlier pioneers that cited significant savings from its analytics investment. It has successfully deployed a process support hub at Boddington, where it saw a 20% increase in throughput since 2012, increased production by 12%, and all-in costs falling by 30%.

These are the droids you’re after

To many, there is another step, beyond simple automation – Robots!

Robots have been used for mineral extraction and hauling for a few years now, despite certain worries around robots replacing humans. Companies that empower their workforce to be prepared for the mines of the future will find the implementation of emerging technology not only effective but decreasingly frictionless. Future mines are not set up to dissolve jobs, but reposition and train employees to utilize the tools they have, increase productivity, and maximize business value.

Robots are being used for dozing, excavation, haulage, mapping and surveying, as well as drilling and explosives handling. Some are also equipped with complex camera systems that can detect gases and other hazards.

In some respects, the mining industry is still playing catch-up toward implementing real-time data analytics. This will change the type of jobs we see in mining, and result in a boom of hiring for information technology positions. Companies need to now hire the right analysts, programmers, and operators to manage data and new technologies.

This topic is a broad one, and one that changes on a monthly basis. New technologies emerge, but not every company is implementing them at warp speed. Often with a large operation, it takes time to integrate new solutions. The fact is, those mining companies that are open to adaptation are the ones that quickly see an improved ROI, and only wished they’d evaluated and executed the implementation of new technologies sooner.

Disclaimer – At Finger Food, our focus has been to address every day inefficiencies and challenges in the mining sector, then build custom solutions that integrate into an existing company’s framework and drive increased ROI.

Images courtesy of Centamin plc.

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