IOT is the mining imperative of the future

Internet of things (IOT) sensors in the mining industry can improve safety, ensure efficient loads, reduce operational delays and provide real-time data for accurate decision-making.

Johannesburg, 19 Feb 2021
Read time 5min 10sec
Professor Brian Armstrong
Professor Brian Armstrong

Mining is recognised as being a costly and dangerous enterprise, so it is only logical that as an industry, it is constantly seeking out new ways to reduce expenses and improve safety. The Internet of things (IOT) seems to be the ideal answer, offering mining companies an opportunity to cut costs, improve safety and streamline processing.

Programme director Professor Brian Armstrong told delegates at the recent MTN IoT Developer Day that mines can already access huge amounts of data from reports and surveys. Moreover, using predictive models, they can leverage this information to identify the best places to explore. At the same time, by embracing technologies like drones and autonomous vehicles, they can also ensure this is all undertaken in the safest manner possible.

“The future of mining is certainly safer, smarter and far more productive. A great example is an iron ore mine in Sweden, where operations take place 1 000m below the surface. However, instead of being underground at the rock face, mining professionals sit in an office several miles away relying instead on IOT sensors, underground LTE networks and cameras, and a powerful private cloud to guide all the blasting and tunnelling in real-time,” he states.

Andre Scott of RedBridge adds that digital transformation in mines helps to improve risk management, increase innovation and enable meaningful data-driven decisions. In addition, he says, it allows the business to harness the power of data and to generate efficiencies that drive a more rapid return on investment (ROI).

“A smart technology platform in this industry needs to be able to provide for both big data analytics and digital process automation. Then, by combining science and technology through artificial intelligence (AI) and contextual information, it can be used to predict behaviour and feed a real-time response to a secure cloud platform,” he says.

“Digitisation is about seamless, dynamic data sharing and the enabling of strategic collaboration across the ecosystem. It is about bringing disparate systems together to provide a single pane of glass view to management, giving them meaningful intelligence to support their business decisions.”

He adds that an effective platform will allow users to drill down into granular detail relating to all the critical systems, devices and data. It also enables the user to consolidate the data into a single control room. This means they can easily manage people, equipment and components effectively, by ensuring that meaningful, contextual and real-time data is despatched to the right people, in the right place, and at the right time.

“Judicious use of the IOT not only provides a greater understanding of geological conditions and operational times and delays, but also mass flow and production figures, At the same time, it improves worker safety and asset management. Ultimately, what this means is more accurate and timely decision-making, which can be undertaken at the click of a button, on any device, at any time.”

Rob Bothma, a solutions engineer at Oracle, suggests that another critical area in mining where IOT plays a vital role is in occupational health and safety.

“In this arena, IOT can offer huge benefits in three important areas, namely the prevention of access to hazardous areas in the workplace; compliance with regard to certifications for access to heavy machinery and dangerous areas; and automatic tracking and time recording of worker activities – all of which are crucial aspects of the mining industry.

“Using IOT, employees can be connected in real-time, and worker movement can be managed through a monitoring and access control system that is based on rules designed according to the needs of the specific client,” he says.

“For mines, striving to eliminate any risks that may cause loss of life is key. Since it is obviously a dangerous industry, an IOT-based mitigation strategy focuses on knowing in real-time where all the workers are, for safety purposes, while also delivering proactive warnings to stay away from hazardous areas.”

Bothma says that warnings can be sent instantly if a worker approaches a hazardous area or one where they are not supposed to be. Rules-based alerts mean that clients can create their own rules to control access to areas. This could incorporate requirements such as skills, safety training or certifications.

“To achieve this, a mix of wearable technologies is required. This includes radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, embedded wearable sensors, smart watches and other smart devices.

“Utilising IOT technologies in this manner offers massive benefits across a number of areas. From a safety perspective, it enables better management and tracking of workers for safety purposes, a more rapid response to accidents, the monitoring of and reaction to workplace environment changes and the management of hazards and hazardous areas.”

Furthermore, from a health point of view, it allows for the monitoring of workplace traffic patterns and occupancy levels. Then, as far as compliance goes, IOT solutions can be used to ensure workers complete their mandatory safety training and to track and react to any unauthorised access to restricted areas. It can also be used to ensure heavy machinery is only operated by certified personnel and to track safety-related communications.

“Finally, from a safety management perspective, it also makes it simple to conduct incident recording and management and institute automated time keeping and implement automated warnings.

“People-centred modernisation in mining is about using real-time data to enact proactive interventions that, in turn, prevent unhealthy conditions before they arise. Therefore, it should be clear that using the IOT in mining has now become imperative for the future,” he concludes.

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