Mining in the Age of the Internet of Things

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As one of the oldest and most heavily regulated trades in the world, mining faces challenges that are shared across many industries yet uniquely complex due to harsh, changing environments. While the cost of doing business rises due to volatile commodity prices and a shrinking talent pool, decision makers must maintain an urgent focus on safety, efficiency and social responsibility. Mining is well-positioned to leverage emerging technologies in the Internet of Things (IoT) to meet these competing demands.

Mine operators can take advantage of IoT data through RFIDs, Radio over IP, and video for greater safety and efficiency. 

Digging Into Data

Finding creative ways to standardize data enablement, collection and analysis are the keys to optimization in industrial settings. Greater connectivity through the Internet of Things (IoT) can be leveraged to unlock real-time statistics and illuminate dark data, boosting operational efficiency. Mining operations have a lot to gain by implementing IoT technologies, but using an off-the-shelf solution may not have the biggest impact.

For mining, the fundamental piece lies in establishing a unified, robust Wi-Fi network either across several miles of rough terrain or deep underground. Once that communication channel is established and secured, the IoT network of devices can go to work making significant improvements to worker safety and operational efficiency. 

Ultimately, you can use IoT data to monitor, communicate with, protect, and manage:

  • Machines
  • Vehicles
  • Cameras
  • Sensors
  • Devices

Reimagining Mine Safety With RFIDs

One area of mining that could be greatly impacted by the creative application of IoT technology is safety. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Having a more granular look at data points surrounding the equipment, environment and personnel could provide better risk management and ultimately help mitigate many of the hazards this industry presents.

For example, an entire team of workers can be equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. This allows colleagues and supervisors to pinpoint their exact location within the field.

Location-based services (LBS) and other IoT technologies can harness that information to improve safety in a number of ways, including:

  • Locating Workers During an Emergency 
    Knowing the exact locations of trapped or injured workers can inform search efforts and dramatically reduce rescue times. Miners can be located within minutes, not days. Using Radio over IP (RoIP), employees can tell exactly who is speaking.
  • Routing Workers Towards Refuge Areas 
    Smart lighting can be used to designate a path for workers, leading them away from hazards to secure areas with food and water supplies.
  • Limiting Access
    Access to restricted or hazardous areas can be individually controlled remotely depending on permissions established through a badge/card system.
  • Monitoring Air Quality
    On-site nanosensors can be used to measure air quality, alerting workers of unsafe levels of gas or respirable particles.
  • Secure Mining Operations With Network Connectivity
    Real-time monitoring of remote areas allows for better incident response time and controls unauthorized access to secure locations.

Using Data to Establish a Smarter, More Efficient Operation

Finding new ways to maximize efficiency becomes a priority for leaders who are faced with rising operating costs. In mining, factors like volatility in commodity pricing make this particularly important. A focus on real-time data analysis is the key to saving time and money in this historically slow, expensive industry.

For example, the tires used on mining fleet vehicles are expensive and time-consuming to replace. To help mitigate unplanned repairs, sensors can be used to monitor tire wear and pressure. This can make a significant impact on production by planning tire maintenance for periods of decreased mining activity, such as during inclement weather or in conjunction with other equipment maintenance. Real-time sensor data can also be leveraged to improve field logistics, from weighing commodity and optimizing load transportation to tracking shipment and delivery. There is an opportunity to reduce downtime in almost every step of the process.

Energy consumption also plays a large role in the overall efficiency of a mining operation. When you consider ventilation – either outflowing for removing vehicle carbon monoxide or inflowing for providing workers with more oxygen – adopting an “on-demand” approach dependent on worker location and need over constant ventilation can significantly reduce costs.

Leveraging Connectivity With RoIP and Video

Maintaining fast, open lines of communication often presents a challenge in the mining industry. Supervisors, engineers and technicians all need to connect with each other, not only over many miles between the field and home offices but often from deep underground or other remote areas. In addition, speed is crucial for relaying pertinent information and resolution during emergencies.

RoIP can be used to create fast, secure connections globally. The devices are easy to use and can be configured so that certain trigger events automatically open communication lines between the designated stakeholders. 

In addition to greater audio connectivity, the IoT can also leverage video to optimize mining efforts. Live video feeds can add value to safety, security and asset management. Physical security is maintained with accurate threat detection, threat monitoring and incident response. 

Capturing Tribal Knowledge With Remote Experts

Recent estimates show that for every six veteran miners who retire from the industry, only one new miner enters the workforce. This has created a unique challenge as it’s often difficult for mining operations to maintain a breadth of institutional knowledge on-site. Networked communications can solve that problem by allowing industry experts from anywhere in the world to collaborate with supervisors and workers in the field to provide real-time solutions.

With strong connectivity, mine operators no longer need to fly out an expert to diagnose a truck problem. Start a dialogue over video to solve the problem. Access to remote experts helps capture tribal knowledge in an aging workforce.

In this situation, diagnosing problems is also easier with IoT data because the truck can self-monitor itself. Machines on the truck monitor its functions. Different monitoring devices can be easily added to a truck, making diagnosis easier and more accurate.

Digital Transformation: Connecting Processes to Drive Business Decisions

At this time in the mining industry, operators are just scratching the surface on what IoT data can do for their people and processes. Decision makers should collaborate with their operations and technology team leaders to determine both immediate and long term goals, as well as what an eventual “ideal state” might look like for their business. These incremental initiatives can be mapped out and approached as a broader digital transformation, encompassing steps to standardize data enablement, collection and analytics. Eventually, the dots can be connected between things, people, and data processes to surface opportunity, inform better business decisions and yield greater results.