The latest generation of sensors and wireless networking products and services enables real-time monitoring of environmental conditions, equipment performance and worker health, reducing accidents and downtime

By Russell A. Carter, Contributing Editor

Miners regularly encounter complex challenges that range from on-site geological, weather, labor and supply concerns; to corporate resource limitations; ESG commitments and other global economic and social issues. They need information to make both immediate and long-term informed decisions — preferably based on data that’s as up to date as possible and in a form that’s quickly and conveniently usable. 

Although the industry has vastly improved its information-technology proficiency over the past decade, it’s still climbing the steepest part of the learning curve that leads to cost-effective digitalization.

Whether a mining company selects a commercial platform or collect the data itself, it’s likely that the data will come from various sensors installed in locations ranging from underground, inside or outside surface facilities, mounted on drones flying overhead, or even in orbital space. Here’s a quick glimpse of just a few recent product introductions that illustrate the expanding scope of sensor-based capabilities throughout the mining process.

Sandvik launched xCell Cyclops, a convergence system for ground support in underground mining intended to provide wireless, continuous, remote and real-time measurement of ground movements.

The company pointed out that underground mining is generally trending deeper, leading to more difficult and complex ground conditions for mine operators to manage. The new xCell Cyclops convergence system, said Sandvik, enables remote assessment of rock mass behavior, which leads to safer, more efficient and cost-

effective ground support and optimized ground rehabilitation.

“The new xCell Cyclops convergence system is a major technological leap forward to achieve a safer, more sustainable way of digitally monitoring convergence in underground mining,” said Peter Young, product manager for bolting at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions’ Ground Support Division. “Through the wireless and connected devices and a user-friendly online platform, customers can easily adapt their individual setup and track any changes in the mine’s ground conditions.”

According to the company, the retrofittable design of xCell Cyclops sensors makes them easy to install directly onto existing rock bolts. They are battery-powered, utilize accurate laser measurements and can be connected via both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, providing operators with real-time access to data, built-in notifications and alarms. This setup reduces the need for manual work and inspections in the mine, reducing costs and improving safety. 

“This product is designed for the modern mine,” Young said. “Manual measuring methods for managing ground support are now a thing of the past. With this new sensor system, it is possible to understand, analyze and forecast ground movements remotely.”

Sandvik is offering the system on a subscription basis with three levels — Basic, Silver and Gold — with the number of users at a site and devices in remote mode varying across the levels. Local service is included in all three levels, and remote service is included in the Gold package.

Data management experts generally agree that there’s no lack of sensor types, capabilities or cost categories to choose from, but at the core of any successfully digitized mine is a workable plan for managing the massive volume of data these devices can generate. 

Listing the Risks

The EY “Top 10 business risks and opportunities for mining and metals in 2024” report released in October points out that cybersecurity has returned to its list for the first time since 2020, as companies experience increased attacks due to a more complex threat landscape that spans both IT and OT. The survey also highlighted a growing concern from miners around intellectual property, as they broaden their thinking from cyber threats being a technology problem to a business risk. Only 40% of mining and metals boards reported confidence that they understand the biggest cyber threats facing their organization, according to the report.

And yet, a variety of sources suggest miners are acutely aware of the value of actionable data in their operations plans and corporate strategy; however, many companies still lack an effective data management policy or platform — and some companies appear to be noticeably better at formulating data management strategies that lead to bottom-line improvements.

In the sidebar accompanying this article, (see Miners Still Struggle to Make Data-driven Decisions, p.36), one recent survey indicated that eight in 10 geoprofessionals in mining saw data management as of high or critical importance for their organization, and said they spent 27% of their time on data — but a third of respondents said they lacked the information they needed to make crucial data-driven decisions. The survey, sponsored by geoscience solutions provider Seequent, found that, specifically within the mining industry, 61% of respondents said their companies do not have a data management framework that is viewed as vital, with 53% planning to create one within the next three years. Only 26% said they were “very ready” to leverage the cloud, with security and cost cited as the main factors.

Another study, published by technology intelligence firm ABI Research, attempted to determine whether there is a correlation between a mining firm’s utilization of digital technologies and its bottom line. ABI Research said it examined the extent that six of the largest mining companies (Anglo American, ArcelorMittal, BHP Billiton, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and Vale) are deploying digital technologies in their operations and contrasted these findings with the firm’s financial results. While most of these global miners have singular, notable digital initiatives, BHP Billiton emerged from the study as one of the more effective managers of its digital resources.

2 Monosnap xCell Cyclops Convergence System-Good DesignMichael Larner, Industrial and Manufacturing Research Director at ABI Research, explained, “The exercise highlights that some mining firms are more digitally mature than others, and in the case of BHP Billiton, data analytics is being utilized to support operations in real-time and underpinning efforts to improve safety and the mine’s overall capacity.” 

One example of BHP’s activity in this area is its announced collaboration with Microsoft to use artificial intelligence and machine learning for the aim of improving copper recovery at Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine. By using real-time plant data from the concentrators in combination with AI-based recommendations from Microsoft’s Azure platform, concentrator operators will have the ability to adjust operational variables that affect ore processing and grade recovery.

In another area, BHP found a way to improve the blast cone sampling procedure used for grade control at various sites. The process formerly required workers to move across uneven ground as they performed highly repetitive manual tasks, including digging and lifting samples of drilled material weighing roughly 5 kg (11 lb). Other significant risks to personnel who operate in these environments include heat-related illnesses, repetitive strain injuries and terrain risks such as voids and wall failures. 

To help address these risks, BHP developed, in partnership with technology developer Sorden and CSIRO, a blast hole assay tool (BHAT) — a neutron logging tool that emits neutrons into the area surrounding the blast hole wall. The neutrons are converted to gammas, which are captured by the tool and converted into multi-element geochemical assays, delivering real-time, multi-element geochemical assays. The BHAT uses data analytics and automation to replace manual tasks associated with collecting blast cone samples, while a semi-automated logging truck ensures the operator does not need to leave the truck and be exposed to the risks identified above. The BHAT and logging trucks undergo regular calibration and maintenance to ensure quality assurance and control, with the data continuously monitored across various time horizons (daily, weekly and monthly).

The company said implementation of the BHAT and use of semi-automatic logging trucks led to a change in the work environment from manual and repetitive digging and shoveling to operators driving and working in air-conditioned and ergonomic vehicles. The shift reduced manual handling injuries associated with manual blast cone sampling. BHP now owns a fleet of FG tools that can be used either for resource evaluation or bench grade control.

Gearing Up for the Smart Mine

As the industry’s interest in smart mining technologies gains momentum, industry vendors and even technical consultancy companies are bolstering their sensor-related product and service offerings through innovation and acquisition.

As an example, infrastructure monitoring specialist Worldsensing is acquiring engineering software developer Bentley Systems’ Thread connectivity device business to expand its hardware portfolio offerings. The acquisition is intended to give Worldsensing the ability to offer new options to its customers where adaptive sensor integrations or active sensor management are a key requirement. Thread offers broadband sensor connectivity to uniquely connect dynamic, high-power, or high-speed sensors and stream sensor data to the cloud for analysis. Thread is a fully autonomous sensor connectivity device with optional integrated 4G/LTE cellular modem, wireless mesh networking, and battery pack in a weather resistant enclosure. Each broadband device also serves as a gateway for wireless smart sensors. 

Worldsensing also said that it is enhancing its support for the mining industry with an offering that provides seamless data acquisition and transmission underground to help improve risk management. The new monitoring suite includes an IoT network technology that has been specifically developed for underground environments. As an enhancement to Worldsensing’s existing portfolio, a repeater device now extends the reach of the company’s LoRa IoT configuration with tree topology. This repeater expands the network range and data transmission to almost 10 km underground when sending data in three hops.

Worldsensing’s LoRa network runs on a sub-gigahertz radio frequency. In underground environments and as part of the LoRa Tree network, repeaters can retransmit data from nodes to the gateway in a multi-hop setup. Each repeater can reach a gateway up to several kilometers away in a single hop provided the route is near a straight line. In comparison, medium-range mesh networks which use sub-gigahertz frequency can reach a gateway some hundred meters away in a single hop. Short-range mesh networks based on 2.4-gigahertz setups can obtain single-hop ranges of some meters underground.

The company claims that even in more complex underground environments, the LoRa tree topology still outperforms wireless alternatives by allowing continuous data flow with a range of hundreds of meters. Overall, according to Worldsensing, this long-range underground technology leads to cost reductions and time savings given that comparably fewer devices are needed to create the monitoring network which leads to lower maintenance to keep the network running and data flowing.

Overcoming the Obstacles

AspenTech, a major supplier of industrial asset-management software, recently published an infographic that, among other items, listed the top five reasons why organizations say they haven’t expanded their use of technology to achieve corporate objectives. A lack of certainty regarding return on investment was number one on the list, followed closely by vendor ability to support, maintain and deliver services. Rounding out the list were concerns about implementation time requirements, a company’s ability or desire to manage and execute change, and simply being too busy with other activities to devote the necessary time to technological matters.

Getting a desired return on investment often simply hinges on choosing the most appropriate technology from the right vendor.

One example of how miners can apply a specific technology as a highly useful piece of a network puzzle — without the need of deep in-house technical experience or the hassle of prolonged, painstaking setup — was recently provided by Kevin Holcomb, technical marketing engineer at Cisco, who explained the company’s LoRaWAN (long-range wide-area network) solution for connecting IoT sensors and endpoints at relatively low costs.

For those unfamiliar with the technology, he explained that LoRaWAN operates globally in unlicensed 800–900 MHz ISM bands. It is available either in a stand-alone configuration or as an integral part of the Cisco Industrial Asset Vision solution — what Holcomb describes as a “quick, out of the box method to use LoRaWAN without the end user actually having to understand everything about LoRaWAN.”

“One LoRaWAN gateway can handle thousands of sensors, so you get a lot of density of coverage” with it, he noted. “But it’s not for streaming video or file transfers or anything like that. It’s really low bandwidth, made for little pieces of information that happen every once in a while. Maybe you need a temperature reading every fifteen minutes, or a vibration reading once an hour — that’s the kind of data we’re looking at here.”

One of the main benefits provided by that low data rate include low power consumption. LoRaWAN sensors are usually battery powered and can last up to ten years before the batteries need to be replaced, according to Holcomb.

Holcomb said that Cisco, after becoming a founding member of the LoRa Alliance, now has more than 500 LoRaWAN customers in more than 60 countries. “All wireless technologies have their place — applications where they ‘shine,’ and others where they don’t do as well. LoRaWAN can fill in some of these gaps and provide long-range coverage and long battery life.” 

Cisco offers an IP67 outdoor-rated gateway and intends to soon release a plug-in module for its IR 1101 router that, when installed, turns the router into a LoRaWAN gateway. It also offers a ‘common packet forwarder,’ which allows the gateway to interoperate with many other network server vendor products, according to Holcomb.

He listed a few common use cases for the technology, such as:

Tracking general assets, such as light plants or comms trailers;

Air quality monitoring;

Cable management – using a third-party sensor that monitors location, shock and energy status; or

Monitoring physical security for assets such as storage buildings, etc., that may not have their own security system, or access monitoring of controlled areas such as battery compartments or tanks.

Holcomb said Cisco’s Industrial Asset vision platform puts all elements of the LoRaWAN technology under one curated, cloud-managed application. “We’ve tried to craft the solution in such a way that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert on LoRaWAN to use it effectively. The main advantage of the cloud solution, for those who need it, is you are looking ‘at a single pane of glass’ for all your sensor-equipped assets and locations that are being monitored. 

“We provide simple reporting and flexible alerting so that, say, when something leaves a geofenced area or a temperature reading is too high, alerts can be sent out through email or to a mobile device.” 

These notifications, said Holcomb, can be structured to follow an escalation path. “Suppose a temperature reading is too high. You can set up the system to notify a certain person, and if it keeps climbing, it will then notify someone else.” It’s all done via templates that eliminate busywork. “You don’t have to remember who gets notified or how — e-mail or SMS — for each sensor.

Though the mining industry has the highest percentage of participants with a Data Management framework, 61% still do not have one.

Report: Miners Still Struggle to Make Data-driven Decisions

Geoscience solutions provider Seequent recently announced the findings of its latest Geoprofessionals Data Management Report, which looked at the trends, challenges, and opportunities in subsurface data. 

The report found that eight in 10 geoprofessionals in mining saw data management as of high or critical importance for their organization, and said they spent 27% of their time on data — but a third of respondents said they lacked the information they needed to make crucial data-driven decisions.

According to Seequent, more than 700 geoprofessionals across industries that work in the subsurface responded to the survey, including 296 mining professionals. Other respondents included those from the civil, energy, and environment sectors. The report, said the company, is unique.

Findings across mining and other industries included:

An increase since 2020 in the use of emerging technologies: 64% of geoprofessionals are using or considering the use of data science scripting, advance analytics, machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI), with 39% using or considering using more than one of these technologies.

SB 2 Data Managment framework

Mining industry spends the most time on Data Management tasks, almost 30% of their effort.

Views on the future of data management:

  AI and automation will reduce time spent on menial tasks and drive efficiency and accuracy.

– Cloud adoption will enable real-time collaboration and synchronization across platforms.

On average 22 people are interacting with their organization’s subsurface data.

Despite the number of people interacting with subsurface data, 65% of organizations do not have an established framework governing data collection, analysis, and safeguarding (the so-called data chain of custody framework).

In mining, specifically:

61% do not have a data management framework that is viewed as vital, with 53% of the respondents from mining planning to create one within the next three years.

Only 26% said they were “very ready” to leverage the cloud, with security and cost cited as the main factors.

Rob Ferguson, segment director, exploration and resource management at Seequent, commented, “The insights we have gathered provide a fascinating picture of the data challenges facing the mining industry. Clearly, the industry needs to tackle its lack of data-driven decision-making to maximize performance.

“There is some work to do to educate the mining industry about the cloud, as the cloud is a cost-effective and secure solution that can help mining organizations transform their data management and collaboration. The adoption of emerging technologies will also be really important for the future of the industry.’’

Seequent noted that the Geoprofessionals Data Management Report is in its sixth edition. Field work was undertaken in May 2023, with a total of 704 responses. The highest response rate was from the Americas, and the mining industry made up 42% of respondents overall.