The Value of Smart Mining: Fuelling Innovation and Supporting the Canadian Economy
As the second-largest country in the world, Canada relies largely on resource extraction to fuel its economy. We all enjoy the benefits of the mining industry, both on an economic level and through its role in creating the products we rely on daily. Everything, from our cell phones to our advanced healthcare system, depends on resources extracted from the earth.
As technology evolves and becomes increasingly integrated into various industries, keeping up with technological innovations is becoming more critical to meeting market demand and remaining competitive globally.
The mining sector is a vast industry impacted by increased technology integration in industrial operations. Smart mining operations are projected to triple by 2025, with 25% of mines having deployed autonomous operations by then (Source: Mordor Intelligence). According to one estimate, digital transformation initiatives in the mining industry will generate more than $460 billion in industry value over the next decade (Source: World Economic Forum). Smart mining technology’s evident impact makes it clear that embracing it is the key to the growth for the sector.
What is Smart Mining?
Smart mining is the use of connected technologies in the mining sector. These technologies include devices like cameras, sensors, and drones, which connect to each other and to their environment through the Internet. Device networks help automate processes, simplify operations, collect informative data, and connect various parts of the mining process. With smart mining technologies, mines increase their efficiency, save money, keep workers safe, and prevent unnecessary pollution.
The key technology behind Smart mining is the Internet of Things (IoT), which is defined by the use of a network of sensors and devices connected through the Internet. When used in industries like mining, IoT is referred to as IIoT, which stands for “Industrial Internet of Things.” The goal of IIoT is to improve industry efficiency by connecting devices and eliminating the need for human involvement in data collection.
In 2018, the total number of installed IoT devices in the mining sector was just under 0.6 million items worldwide (Source: Berg Insight). This number is forecasted to reach 1.2 million by 2023. Clearly, the industry is finding value in acquiring and implementing IoT networks.
IoT allows people, machinery, and vehicles to remain connected so that data is automatically transferred between devices without the need for human interference. This increases visibility across the mine to improve the maintenance and operation of advanced machinery (Source: Mining Technology).
Before, data was manually collected and written on paper. This method made it difficult to collect large datasets and use data to its full potential. With smart mining, accurate data is collected automatically in large quantities through IoT sensors and devices. Not only is it now possible to collect vast amounts of data, but it’s possible to harness artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to make calculations and analyze the results automatically. Additionally, AI leverages data to predict operational needs and generate actionable items for improving processes.
Canada’s investment in modern mining technology has many advantages for the industry itself, miners/workers, and Canada as a whole.
The 7 Benefits of Implementing Smart Mining
- Reduced operational costs
- Optimized workflow and decision-making
- Increased accuracy in drill and blast mining
- Predictive equipment maintenance
- Improved recruiting and employee retention
- Better worker safety
- Prevention of environmental incident
Reduced Operational Costs
While the upfront costs of implementing smart mining technologies are high, they help reduce mining operational costs in the long run. Tasks that are usually done by people are automated for ultimate productivity, leading to increased profits. Additionally, with automated machines performing various tasks, fewer people need to be on the field at a time, making a reduced task force possible.
Automation also makes certain costs unnecessary, like the cost of labour for manual data collection and cable maintenance.
A mine’s three main cost areas are equipment, energy, and safety. Investing in equipment leads to fewer costs in energy and safety. Collecting data through smart sensors helps mines use energy more efficiently and prevents expensive safety incidents, leading to a safer working environment.
Optimized Workflow and Decision-Making
Big data automation makes it easier to optimize every stage of the mining process, including mine discovery, excavation, stockpile management and sales. Large-scale data gathering leads to less downtime because errors or inconsistencies are immediately identified and addressed sooner than they would have been otherwise. It also simplifies tracking materials across the value chain, so that less time is wasted on figuring out logistics.
Regularly going over data allows organizations to continuously adapt and find room for improvement, producing a lean and effective organization. Smart technologies can automatically provide valuable insights, leading to better decision-making and leaving more time for implementing beneficial changes. Additionally, interconnected device networks make it possible to increase collaboration across all levels of a mine, leading to better decision-making.
Increased Accuracy in Drill and Blast Mining
In mining, the number of natural resources excavated determines profits. Therefore, making sure machinery is used as efficiently as possible is crucial to meeting performance goals. Using AI and data analytics decreases manually searching for ores and minimizes the possibility of human error. The same mining site becomes more productive and yields more profits when smart technologies are leveraged.
The use of high-tech equipment in the mining industry makes it easier to understand a mine’s geography and weak points. For example, drone mapping and image recognition technology allow workers to gain a better understanding of a mine’s terrain. (Automated drones and image recognition technology will be discussed later in this article.) More detailed mapping increases the accuracy of explosive deployment, optimizing various resources like the required number of explosives and hours of labour.
Predictive Equipment Maintenance
IoT sensors generate a constant stream of data on equipment “wear and tear”, allowing for the predictive maintenance of equipment. Predictive maintenance allows a mining operation to know when and where there will be equipment issues based on all variables, like temperature, pressure, and usage. This means maintenance checks and replacements can take place when it is truly needed, saving money and resources compared to constant routine maintenance upkeep.
Improved Recruiting and Employee Retention
Maintaining a skilled workforce is a continuous challenge in the mining industry. Increasing demand for resources, a retiring workforce, and a lack of emphasis on skilled trades in younger generations have created a mining labour shortage (Source: Mining.com).
Almost half of the current workforce is over 45 years of age, and 60,000 people will retire in the next decade. One source estimates that 100,000 new workers will be needed in the next ten years to meet sector labour supply requirements (Source: Mines Canada).
While mining has been and continues to be a respectable profession for hardworking individuals, fewer and fewer people are interested in pursuing careers in the sector. This lack of interest is caused by a combination of factors, including the physical and mental toll, possible dangers, and the remoteness of many mining communities. Smart mining makes the mining sector more attractive to new workers by making it possible to work from a safe, remote location while using cutting-edge technology.
With this new technology, smart mining is introducing more jobs to people from a broader set of educational backgrounds. The new mining workforce includes engineers, computer scientists, programmers and data analysts (Source: Mines Canada).
Better Worker Safety with Smart Mining
Perhaps the most apparent advantage of Smart Mining is its benefits for worker safety. Mining is a notoriously dangerous job, with workers facing physical dangers like cave-ins, explosives, and extreme temperatures. Mineworkers are exposed to many medical risks, from physical injuries due to heavy lifting to respiratory diseases like lung cancer and “black lung disease.” There’s also the risk of hearing loss due to loud, repetitive noises.
To moderate the impacts of many dangers faced by mineworkers, Canada established clear safety expectations. In 2020, the Mining Association of Canada created a safety and health assessment protocol with four performance indicators: commitments and accountability; planning and implementation; training, behaviour, and culture; and monitoring and reporting. Equipping a mine and workers with connective technologies and providing the appropriate training assists mines in all these areas. AI helps generate detailed, actionable reports, facilitating safety accountability, planning, training, monitoring, and improvements.
With AI and machine learning constantly analyzing data, negative behavioural trends can be quickly spotted and recommended corrective training can then be automatically recommended (Source: Deloitte).
Smart mining and automated equipment allow many workers to do their jobs remotely, away from the dangers of unstable areas within the mine. Thus, in many cases, new technologies have removed a lot of the labour-intensive work and improved overall safety (Source: Ontario.ca). For example, autonomous vehicles keep people out of dangerous areas while transporting materials to where they need to go.
Additionally, technology helps workers who can’t do their jobs remotely stay safe. In cases where miners must work under potentially dangerous conditions, Smart PPE and wearable sensors can alert workers about abnormalities in their environment or their individual biometrics, prompting them to follow emergency procedures when needed. (We discuss Smart PPE later in this article.)
Prevention of Environmental Incidents
In the mining industry, any errors can lead to injuries and fatalities, as well as have dire consequences on the local environment. The best solution is to take advantage of the latest technology to automate equipment, monitor processes, and use data to proactively predict outcomes and make efficient decisions.
In their paper “Green and climate-smart mining: A framework to analyze open-pit mines for cleaner mineral production”, Jiskani et al. established a framework based on six leading indicators that evaluate mines for cleaner production: environmental protection, pollution control, waste management, energy and resource consumption, technology enablement and implementation, and strategic and managerial efficiency. IIoT can help mines improve their performance for every one of these factors.
One environmental incident that could have been detected and mitigated with network technology is the Obed Mountain coal mine spill. This spill took place in Alberta in 2013 due to the collapse of a tailings dam. The result? One billion litres of wastewater spilled in the local river (Source: The Globe and Mail). This incident had a devastating effect on the ecosystem and temporarily made the water unsuitable for drinking and watering crops. With the right technology, the tailings dam’s lack of structural integrity could have been detected earlier, preventing the pollution of Alberta’s water supply.
The best solution for operations to avoid unexpected consequences on the environment is the large-scale collection of real-time data. Using historical data, AI technology can use algorithms to predict environmental risks and generate actionable insights. AI can also be used to predict energy peaks, allowing operations to control their energy usage, reduce overall energy demand, save costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Smart Mining’s Impact on Canada
Not only does smart mining technology have many advantages for the mining industry, but the development of industrial technologies is beneficial to Canada’s economy.
Smart mining will have a massive impact on Canada by:
- Providing materials for sustainable technologies
- Developing Canada’s economy
- Presenting Canada as an Industry Leader in Tech Mining
Providing Materials for Sustainable Technologies
People often associate mining with environmental damage, but the reality is that the industry is necessary for combatting climate change. It supplies Canada with the raw materials needed to build sustainable, low-carbon technologies. Solar panels, wind turbines, permanent magnets, satellites, and electric cars are a few examples of technologies requiring mined minerals and metals. The growing demand for clean energy technologies is increasing the demand for minerals, with graphite, lithium and cobalt production estimated to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 (Source: The World Bank).
Canadian mining has a significant role to play in the worldwide transition to clean energy. For example, Canada has all the critical minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries (Source: Invest Canada). Canada is also a major source of copper, a mineral that is widely used in clean energy technology because of its high conductivity levels. In 2020, Canadian mines produced 475,898 tonnes of copper in concentrate. That same year, copper exports were valued at $7.3 billion (Source: NRCan).
By investing in the development and commercialization of smart mining technologies, Canada contributes to global efforts to transition to more sustainable technologies while reaping the benefits of Canadian innovation.
Canada’s Economy Depends on Mining
The mining industry’s role in the Canadian economy cannot be downplayed. In 2019, Canadian mineral production had a value of $48.2 billion. That same year, the minerals and metals sector directly employed 392,000 people and indirectly employed an additional 327,000, for a total of 719,000 people (Source: NRCan). Fostering healthy economic growth is crucial to maintaining and improving Canada’s wealth and wellbeing.
By continuing to differentiate itself through the development of Smart mining technologies, Canada can attract new investments on an international level and remain competitive on the global market, bolstering the country’s economy (Source: NRCan).
While the mining industry is essential in and of itself, it’s also important to note that it fuels every other industry. The agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, construction, energy extraction and technology sectors all rely on materials mined from the earth. A thriving mining sector boosts Canada’s economy by providing the raw materials for production and innovation.
Canada as a Smart Mining Leader
Supporting IoT development in Canada’s mining sector allows it to maintain its position as a tech industry leader. Investing in technological innovation in Canada leads to the creation, development and commercialization of products sold to other countries (Source: Government of Canada). Not only does this increase Canada’s GDP, but it prevents Canada from having to import the newest technology from other countries.
Canada is recognized worldwide for its leadership and commitment to innovation and diversity in the workforce. Canada’s investment in smart mining demonstrates its support for environmentalism and job creation and helps the country stand out on the world stage (Source: Government of Canada).
Technologies Used in Smart Mining
There are many different types of smart mining technology, and the number is continually growing.
- Underground monitoring systems
- Autonomous vehicles
- Remote-controlled drills
- Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
- 3D laser scanning
- Geographic information systems (GIS)
- Image recognition technology
- Smart PPE
Underground Monitoring Systems
An underground network of sensors powered by IoT helps keep workers constantly up to date on the state of the underground environment and mining operations. These sensors connect to each other and the Internet and share data between different devices. Companies that use IoT usually choose to store their data on the Cloud because IoT devices collect large quantities of data and facilitate collaboration across operations.
Sensors enable the mass collection of data that help make smart mining so much more efficient than traditional mining practices. More data leads to a better understanding of mining operations, which allows for better planning and site-wide improvements.
Moreover, IoT sensors allow a mine to know the exact second something goes wrong instead of discovering anomalies after the situation has had time to aggravate. Miners working above and below ground can be informed of issues in real-time and can deal with them more concisely.
Autonomous Smart Mining Vehicles
People have been looking forward to self-driving cars for decades, but while we wait for them to hit our highways, automated fleet vehicles are already impacting the mining industry. These vehicles position themselves with their environment, load and unload materials, perform route tracking, and park by themselves (Source: CNBC). Route tracking is when machines use AI to identify the optimal route to travel. By pinpointing the best possible trajectory, autonomous vehicles reduce fuel consumption. Each autonomous vehicle communicates with the rest of the fleet, and built-in collision awareness increases efficiency and decreases accidents.
Mining vehicles often access hazardous areas, putting drivers in danger. Automated vehicles reduce the risk of accidents and keep people out of harm’s way.
Remote-controlled drills are operated from a console at a remote location. This means workers aren’t exposed to the typical dangers associated with drilling. Additionally, operators can use multiple drills simultaneously, increasing efficiency.
Autonomous drills also offer more precise drilling. Unevenly blasted material is more challenging to handle and leads to more costly operations. With advanced technology, drilling is more precise, setting a better foundation for the entire operation.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)
UAVs, commonly known as drones, are used for prospecting possible new mines and providing visualizations of geographical areas. Instead of sending a team of people to stake out the land and having to build roads for them, drone imaging provides an accurate, detailed view of the terrain that wouldn’t be possible without technology.
Drone mapping is a lot faster than in-person mapping. It also makes it possible to map out previously inaccessible areas, with accuracy down to 1 cm (Source: Wingtra).
Aside from mapping mines, automated drones survey hazardous areas to ensure worker safety. Workers also use them to measure and manage inventory and perform inspections.
3D Laser Scanning in Smart Mining
Three-dimensional laser scanning has been used for years in civil engineering and architecture, but it’s relatively new to the mining industry. This technology uses laser light to analyze the environment’s geography and create a 3D map. Analyzing the resulting geographical data helps workers with mine exploration, the planning of drill holes, and project management (Source: Mining Technology).
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
GIS offers mineworkers a more in-depth look at an area’s geography, especially when the terrain is inaccessible. This technology provides a 3D visualization of a mine, including the location, size, and shape of various geographical features.
GIS generates a digital map with various “layers” superimposed on a base map. Different versions of this map can be toggled to showcase additional landscape features depending on your purpose. GIS apps then allow workers to view detailed maps on various devices from any number of locations and access a database of geographical data.
Image Recognition Technology
Smart mines use image recognition technology to detect ores and differentiate them from the surrounding environment. This increased accuracy mitigates human error and streamlines the mining process.
For example, image recognition can differentiate between copper grades, some of which are suitable to different commercialization ends.
Smart PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
Many types of PPE have “Smart” equivalents, whether it’s hardhats, vests, safety goggles, or boots. These safety wear items can contain a variety of sensors and communication devices that connect workers—especially lone workers—and provide them with real-time biometric data to ensure their safety in dangerous environments.
By measuring physiological indicators like body temperature, breath frequency, and heart rate, mineworkers and managers can be informed of an incident as soon as it happens and can deploy emergency help faster. For example, if someone fell, their heart rate would spike drastically. Some smart PPE can even detect poisonous substances/gases, preventing potentially deadly injuries (Source: Oilman).
Mineworkers follow strict work/rest regimes to stay safe in a difficult work environment. Keeping track of biometrics through PPE helps keep everyone informed of the state of each worker so they can rest when required and prevent overexertion.
Smart Living Mining Lab: Testing the Future of Mining Technologies
CENGN’s Smart Mining Living Lab, located at the NORCAT facility in Sudbury, Ontario, supports technological innovation in Canada’s mining sector. The infrastructure leverages technology from Nokia and Northern Lights Technology to provide Canadian tech startups and scaleups with access to advanced wireless communications within a working mine. This infrastructure allows companies to test their smart mining technologies for market in a non-simulated environment.
According to Greg Rickford, Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, “The Smart Mining Testbed will play a key role in developing technologies that push the boundaries of traditional mining practices and create good jobs and opportunities in Ontario” (Source: News. Ontario).
CENGN connects with many companies to help test and commercialize smart mining products:
- Minetell is a data management platform that communicates real-time risk exposures to mines to help protect local communities, the environment, and billions of dollars of investments.
- FORTAI‘s ADMMIT products help mines with inventory management and eliminate material loss.
- SHYFTinc automation and software products to market that help mines with energy management and ventilation control.
- Meta Innovation Technologies offers a simulation-based digital learning and development platform, metaKinetic, built for energy and mining industry professionals to develop a deeper understanding of technical concepts and workflows.
Canadian companies like these represent the future of the mining industry. Combined, they showcase the wealth of tech innovation and expertise coming out of Canada, as well as the Canadian Government’s commitment to supporting and funding these profitable ventures.
Every industry is constantly evolving to become more efficient and adapt to the circumstances of the modern world. Smart mining technology represents an upfront investment for necessary long-term benefits of a greener, safer, and more competitive Canada.
Looking to test out your company’s mining solution?
Learn more about how Canadian startups and scaleups can use CENGN’s commercial-grade infrastructure to test their product/service in a real mining environment.