Mining is a key economic activity that has evolved over the space of many thousands of years into the high-tech industry that exists today. This article will look at how mining has changed over time and the technologies that are driving mining progress in a rapidly changing world.
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Mining: An Evolving Industry
Since prehistory, humankind has extracted valuable mineral and metal resources from the ground and turned them into a myriad of products, both practical and decorative.
From the very early days of utilizing surface materials, from simple open-pit mining to the deep underground mines of today, the mining industry has been a tale of evolution.
Over the space of millennia, mining was conducted using manual tools, with miners digging shafts and pits by hand.
Simple technologies such as pickaxes, hammers, and pans were used to extract ore, and supports were used to stabilize the surrounding rock and prevent catastrophic cave-ins.
Fire-setting, where rock is heated by lighting a fire and then quenched with water to induce fractures, was a common technique until 1863 when dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel.
Twenty-first-century demands have forced the mining industry to continue evolving. The growing awareness of climate change and the environmental damage caused by mining operations, the demands of new technologies, and the depletion of natural reserves of mineral and metal resources have all crystallized the need for innovative technologies. Moreover, the need to improve safety and increase the productivity and economic viability of mines in increasingly extreme environments is essential.
Automation in the Mining Sector
Automation has become a key trend in the mining ecosystem. Moving mines toward an increasingly operator-free environment provides key benefits for the industry in terms of safety, labor costs, and production efficiency.
Engineers, mine planners, and workers can remotely control automated systems in a centralized location. This is especially important for deep mining operations, where extreme environments exist that can endanger life and equipment.
Autonomous vehicles, wireless communications, human-machine interfaces, sensors, and data analytics are some of the technologies that are being used to shift mining operations away from worker-centric to fully automated, connected, and smart mines of the future.
Another advantage of automation is that several pieces of equipment can be controlled at once by a single operator.
Robotics in Mining Applications
Robotics has provided several advantageous applications for mine operators in terms of automation and improving safety and efficiency in harsh environments.
Low-cost and easy-to-operate drones map new mines and deposits to help engineers plan projects.
Drones can map surface topography in remote areas, provide surveillance capabilities in hazardous areas, measure inventory, and inspect infrastructure for potential issues.
Automated vehicles are used to transport minerals to the surface for processing, autonomous systems are used for drilling and explosives placement, secondary rock breaking, and roadway development.
Drones and robots can explore abandoned and hazardous mines for environmental remediation purposes and identify any new mineral deposits and ensure continued economic viability.
AI, Big Data and Virtual Reality
In recent years, the industry has invested in research and development of innovative technologies in the AI, data, and virtual reality sphere to create the smart, connected mine of the future.
Augmented reality and virtual reality, for instance, are becoming powerful training tools in the mining industry to improve safety and productivity.
Digital twins are being developed for both training and predictive maintenance purposes.
Utilizing sensors attached to equipment and personnel, data can be continuously gathered during operations and fed back to a central hub for analysis. This constant stream of information can provide real-time analytics, predictive maintenance, and improve the efficiency of future operations.
Technologies such as AI and machine learning can be integrated into software systems and further improve the efficiency of mining operations.
The integrated use of AI, data, virtual reality, automation, and robotics creates an intelligent mining system, replacing traditional human workers in mines, and is central to the future evolution of the mining industry as it meets the challenges of a changing world in the 21st century.
The environmental impact of mining activities has become apparent in the past few decades.
The mining industry is increasingly investigating green, sustainable technologies to mitigate this impact.
Reducing the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions is a key concern, as well as avoiding contamination of groundwater and remediating environmental damage.
Hybrid autonomous vehicles which use less diesel, fully electrical vehicles, environmentally friendly leaching technologies, and portable rigs are some of the technologies that have been explored in recent years.
Diesel-electric loaders have recently been developed, and there is an increasing focus on utilizing waste streams such as mine tailings instead of exploiting virgin mineral and metal resources.
Even materials used in mine construction are undergoing a green revolution, with low carbon cement binders being used to replace Ordinary Portland Cement, the production of which is the main driver of climate change and the main source of embodied carbon.
Increasingly employing green solutions for the mining industry is vital to keep it in line with its environmental commitments.
Geo-Metallurgy and Subsurface Mapping
A main challenge for the mining industry is the search for ever-deeper resources in underground mines.
With increasing depth, factors such as temperature and pressure can significantly influence the composition of orebodies and the mechanics of surrounding rocks. Geometallurgy combines geology and metallurgy to elucidate information about underground deposits to create geological and spatially based predictive models. These models are used for economic predictions and risk management.
Subsurface mapping is an emerging technology that collects data on subsurface deposits by using technologies such as digital laser mapping, UAVs, and sensors. Satellite mapping, seismic data, and several other data streams can be combined into an integrated model which accurately depicts the subsurface geology and orebody characteristics in a deposit, giving mine planners and engineers a powerful tool for safe and efficient mine design.
Technology is driving the current evolution of the mining industry, with the future mine set to become a more interconnected, data-driven, safer, productive, and sustainable ecosystem.
Several innovative solutions to help the industry meet the challenges of climate change and dwindling mineral and metal resources have been developed in recent years, paving the way for a revolution in mining.
References and Further Reading
Marshall, J et al. (2016) Robotics in Mining. Springer Handbook of Robotics pp. 1549-1576. Available at: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-32552-1_59
Fade, L (2018) How Virtual & Augmented Reality are Revolutionizing the Mining Industry [online] vrvisiongroup.com. Available at: https://vrvisiongroup.com/how-virtual-augmented-reality-are-revolutionizing-the-mining-industry/
Deloitte (2021) Tracking the trends 2021 [online] deloitte.com. Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/mining-and-metals/tracking-the-trends.html