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The Changing Underground Space

The Pace Of Technological Change Is Revolutionizing The Way We Work. This Is As True In The Mining Industry As It Is Anywhere Else – And Especially So Underground.

By Jonathan Rowland

Underground mining is going through a period of unprecedented change and opportunity, as new technologies change the way the industry operates. – Photo: Sandvik

Innovation is coming thick and fast in the mining industry today as mining companies look for solutions to pressing challenges. Global efforts to mitigate climate change are placing more pressure than ever before on mining to ensure their operations minimize their environmental impact. Declining ore grades are pushing mines to greater depths and more remote locations, impacting costs. Digitalization is throwing automated machines and people together into the same (sometimes confined) spaces, raising new safety challenges.

The underground environment is in particular focus. Surface mineral deposits are becoming increasingly rare, driving mining deeper to meet demand. The use of land is also becoming much more tightly regulated: environmental permits are harder to obtain for surface greenfield developments – and are only likely to get harder still. There are already those in the industry that believe the future of mining will be underground¹ – so with this in mind, here are three technologies that promise to play an important role in this transition.

Wearables

According to a report co-authored by Deloitte and Norcat,² wearables – clothing, gear and other accessories that incorporate digital technologies – are “one set of emerging solutions driving productivity [and] are also critical in ensuring mining executives are equipped to address health, safety and environmental challenges.” Specifically, wearables can enable:

  • Environmental monitoring: remote sensing technologies can assist frontline workers anticipate and respond to risks of overheating.
  • Workers’ health: biometric devices can provide real-time alerts when workers may be at risk of injury or of causing accidents, e.g. when they are overworked (highly stressed).
  • Training: real-time virtual and augmented reality applications can speed up skills and knowledge development, particularly in contexts where increased use of mobile equipment brings higher risk of collisions.
  • Better response capability to incidents at new of exploratory mine sites through data tracking and communication technologies.

Challenging the use of wearables – and particularly those that capture sensitive biometric data – are issues around data security and ensuring confidential is not misused by companies. The concern of one union quoted in the Deloitte/Norcat report is perhaps representative: “Unions often take the perspective that, contrary to monitoring the environment, wearables do monitor the worker – including management monitoring confidential health data that a frontline worker may not be comfortable sharing.”

However, while the “long list of privacy and data security risks [associated with wearables] may be daunting, employers should not necessarily shy away [from them],” argued Philip Gordon and Zoe Argento of law firm, Littler Mendelson LLC, in an article for Bloomberg Law as far back as 2015.³ “Wearables offer unique benefits. The key to advantage of these benefits is recognizing that […] policies and training to reduce privacy and data security risk should be central to any wearables policy. When possible, privacy and data security should be designed into the devices.”

5G

Of course, wearable technology – indeed much of the technologies that fall under the Industrial Internet of Things banner – would be ineffectual without decent underground communications. Which is where 5G comes into play. But although this technology has been much hyped, what exactly is it?

It’s not just the next step up from 4G – at least according to Rajeev Suri of Nokia. In a report for the World Economic Forum,4 Suri defines 5G as possessing “unique characteristics that make is socially and economically transformative.” These characteristics include “low latency, fast speeds, connection capability, and unparalleled reliability.”

All well and good. But what does that mean for the mining industry – and particularly the underground mining industry? In July 2020, there was an intriguing development: Nokia announced a partnership with Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology to deploy a 5G industrial-grade private network at the Sandvik test mine in Tampere, Finland.5

According to the accompanying press release, the network will enable fast, reliable and secure voice and video communications, enabling remote machine operations over 4K video-links between a surface control centre and the underground mining operations. Other benefits will include increased computing ability, faster access to rea-time data, and increased data capture and analysis.6

“By deploying a Nokia 5G SA private wireless network with Nokia Digital Automation Cloud, we can trial and showcase an entirely new range of game-changing products and capabilities here in our Tampere test mine,” said Patrick Murphy, president of rock drills and technologies at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology. “As we work with our customers to help them leverage technology to digitalize their operations, the introduction of 5G opens the door to new opportunities in robotics, remote and autonomous operations, full-fleet automation, analytics and enhanced safety. As such, it comprises a breakthrough in the digital transformation of mining.”

The Sandvik-Nokia partnership is not the first in the mining industry to focus on 5G deployment in underground mining. Back in 2018, Volvo Construction Equipment was among the first to trial 5G mobile technology in mining as part of a collaboration with Telia. This was followed in October 2019 with the news that the company was working with Chilean copper miner Codelco to explore how greater connectivity can help to reduce costs and increase capacity.7

“5G is essential for achieving the full value of digitalization,” said Rafael Nieweglowski, director of the Southern District of Latin America for Volvo CE, at the time. “Progressive industries like mining are acting now so that they can work out new business models and explore the best fit for it within their sectors. We have the software, we have the intelligence – what we need now is a reliable connection so that we can access data in real-time, all the time.”

Hydrogen

The hype around electric vehicles (EV) is well established. As Mining3 wrote in 2018,8 “if you’ve been following the news in the mining industry recently, you would have noticed the growing number of announcements about investment by mining companies and suppliers in batter-electric vehicles […] This renewed focus on battery-electric haulage in not surprising considering the billions of dollars of investment going into battery-electric cars, buses, and trucks in the automotive industry.”

The technology is likely however to be crucial in enabling the mining industry to decarbonize – just as it is for the wider transportation industry. Electrification of underground transportation and haulage also improves the health and safety of workers by eliminated the heat and emissions that diesel engines produce.

While the traditional lithium-ion battery might be familiar, it is not the only player in the game – and hydrogen may well be one to watch. Not only for EV but also in larger-scale applications for off-grid mine sites.9 A viability analysis by researchers in Spain, published in 2019, found that the use of hydrogen as a fuel for underground mining may already make economic sense: the researchers performed a viability study for green hydrogen as a fuel for underground mining, observing a net present value of €12,051,391 and ROI of 7.78 years.10

The application of hydrogen at mine sites is also not limited to fuelling vehicles: in an article for the Rocky Mountain Institute,9 Christopher Jackson and Patrick Molloy note that the flexibility of hydrogen give it the “dynamic value of being usable in a variety of different processes around the mining, including […] as energy for heating and cooling systems and as secondary or backup fuel stock for electricity generation, providing enhanced energy security.”

The use of hydrogen underground is not without risks, however, as Dr. Dmitri Bessarabov, director of the Hydrogen South Africa Infrastructure Center of Competence at North-West University has noted:11 “The main concerns associated with hydrogen powered vehicles and machinery in confined space are hydrogen leaks and the occasional venting of hydrogen from fuel cell systems. These scenarios either need to be avoided, or managed in a safe manner. Hydrogen leaks and venting poses a risk in underground mines, due to the confined spaces and pockets where hydrogen can accumulate in higher than the lower flammability limits.”

Conclusion

The three technologies presented here are, of course, the tip of the iceberg: many others could have been mentioned – from the Python modular ore-concentration plant that can be installed in underground mines (reducing the surface impact of mining) to Hovermap smart mobile scanning device the can be mounted to drones and used to map unsafe or inaccessible regions of underground mines. And then there is autonomy and potential that – in future – mines will run without the day-to-day human intervention.

What all three of the technologies mentioned in this article sow and share, however, is the ubiquity of digital technologies: the traditional boundaries between what was “consumer” and what was “industrial” technology is blurring and fading. The technologies we find in in our living rooms (even our wardrobes), in our garages, and powering our mobile devices may well increasingly be those that are found in the mine.

The second “I” in IIoT – Industrial Internet of Things – may one day be superfluous, unnecessary, as the hyper-connected world brings the personal, professional and industrial worlds together in ways that – only a generation – would have seemed like science fiction.


References

1. One example is Newtrax, which aims to integrate the latest IoT and analytics technologies to monitor and provide insights into underground operations: https://newtrax.com/about-us
2. Future of Mining with Wearables: Harnessing the Hype to Improve Safety, Deloitte and Norcat: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Energy-and-Resources/gx-eri-norcat-report.pdf
3. GORDON, P. and ARGENTO, Z., “The Brave New World of Wearables in the Workplace: Privacy and Data Security Concerns for Employers”, Bloomberg Law (17 January 2015): https://news.bloomberglaw.com/tech-and-telecom-law/the-brave-new-world-of-wearables-in-the-workplace-privacy-and-data-security-concerns-for-employers
4. SURI, R., “5G will redefine entire business models. Here’s how”, World Economic Forum (23 January 2019): https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/5g-will-redefine-entire-business-models-here-s-how/
5. HORWITZ, J., “Sandvik picks Nokia 5G networking gear to automate underground mining”, VentureBeat (21 July 2020): https://venturebeat.com/2020/07/21/sandvik-picks-nokia-5g-networking-gear-to-automate-underground-mining/
6. For more on Sandvik’s work with 5G see: “5G is finally here – This is what you need to know” (27 November 2019): https://www.home.sandvik/en/stories/articles/2019/11/5g-is-finally-here-this-is-what-you-need-to-know/
7. “Mining in Chile: Connecting at a Deeper Level”, Volvo CE (24 October 2019): https://www.volvoce.com/global/en/news-and-events/news-and-stories/2019/mining-in-chile/
8. “The electric dream”, mining3 (12 September 2018): https://www.mining3.com/the-electric-dream/
9. JACKSON, C., and MOLLOY, P., “A renewable hydrogen way forward for the mining industry”, Rocky Mountain Institute (20 September 2018): https://rmi.org/a-renewable-hydrogen-way-forward-for-the-mining-industry/
10. FUNEZ GUERRA, C., et al., “Viability analysis of underground mining machinery using green hydrogen as a fuel,” International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Vol, 45, issue 8, (February 2020), pp. 5112-5121.
11. MOORE, P., “HySA test facility evaluating potential for hydrogen fuel cells in underground mining”, International Mining, (22 August 2019): https://im-mining.com/2019/08/22/hysa-test-facility-evaluating-potential-hydrogen-fuel-cells-underground-mining/