The so-called ‘digital mine’ is no longer a future prospect.
It is already well and truly a fixture of the Australian mining landscape, and operators large and small, from front-end mining companies to the service industries, are a vital cog in the extractive industries supply chain.
The mining and resources sectors have undergone more change in the past 10 years than in the past 100 years.
Terms such as real-time data capture, automation and autonomous vehicles, wearable technologies and digital-twinning are part of the mining and METS sector lexicon in the 21st century.
But as Australian mining races to be at the forefront of a global trend, there are concerns about not only workforce availability and skill sets, but the traditional approach to tertiary education that is not necessarily geared towards the requirements of modern mining needs and practices.
What is the ‘digital mine’?
The evolution of the ‘digital mine’ in Australia has been led by the the well established mining companies, known as the majors — large multi-national companies that tend to work in the bulk-commodities sectors such as coal and iron ore.
Rio Tinto led the charge when it moved its iron ore rolling stock to an autonomous model, and BHP Billiton followed with driverless trucks on some of its mine sites.
Trains that can be kilometres long are autonomously operated from a nerve centre in Perth, Western Australia, and driverless trains and trucks are now commonplace in the iron ore industry in the Pilbara in Western Australia’s north-west.
Now the junior and mid-size miners and the companies that service them are operating or working towards the digital mine model.
A digital mine is a traditional mine that is using digital technologies, for example: autonomous trucks, trains, and drones to extract greater value from existing assets.
They work with the so-called internet of things that enables them to use advanced technologies such as real-time data capture with low cost sensors that feed information back to operators.
That information, known as big data, may also come from technologies such as ‘wearables’, is integrated in areas such as planning, control and decision making with the ultimate aim of extracting greater value at lower cost, while improving the health and safety of mine workers.
The rise of the robotic drone
Drones are increasingly being used across many industry sectors, but Israeli company Airobotics is the first to introduce fully autonomous drones to the Australian mining industry.
It has teamed up with South32 to trial the drone at the Worsley Alumina project in south-west Western Australia.
Joseph Urli is the director of flight operations in Australia, and said the drones aimed to remove the ‘3 Ds’ from the jobs of the mine workforce — danger, and dull and dirty jobs.
“Instead of doing things like sending people out on surveys, or having them undertake a mission, the drone can do it all and it reduces the exposure of humans to risk,” he said.
Airobotics is also working with aviation safety body CASA to use the trial to help develop regulations on the use of autonomous drones.
“Since then, however, other civil aviation authorities around world have caught up and in fact overtaken regulation in this space.
“There’s a senate inquiry underway into safety of drones at moment, and we think that’s a very positive move, it is very inclusive and seeking input across the board from people like airline pilots, air traffic controllers, and professional drone operators.
“We want to see the mavericks taken out of the equation, and the drone hobbyist sticking to their assigned, approved airfields.”
Airobotics demonstrated its technology at Diggers and Dealers in 2016 and at the time no company in Australia was working with industrial level autonomous drones.
It now has three deployed across the nation.
Digital mine calls for specialist skills
Northern Star Resources has had a meteoric rise from start-up exploration company in 2003 to becoming Australia’s third-largest gold miner by 2014.
Its focus is underground gold mines, which is a reflection of the fact that, after years of easy to access open pit surface mines, the future trend is definitely underground mining.
“We’re looking forward and what we see is the surface mine deposits will be depleted,” CEO Stuart Tonkin said.
“The industry has already moved from 75 per cent of the mines being open cut to now only 56 per cent.
“And with the push to remove diesel trucks from underground and move to autonomous electric vehicles, we need to be preparing for that future.”
The company has just committed $50 million over 10 years to develop and expand an appropriately skilled workforce.
But Mr Tonkin warns against confusing technology with innovation.
“As soon as you move to those electric vehicles, there’s a whole different skill set in trades that need to be involved in keeping that gear running, like diagnostics” he said.
“We need to start training them now, because it does take time.”
Like many, Mr Tonkin refutes claims that the move to digital mines means a reduction in jobs.
“There’s no point displacing labour,” he said.
“You need the same labour and there is a shortage of labour, a shortage of people who are interested in going into underground mining.
“So just the sheer education and getting people excited about it is part of this whole program we’ve embarked on.”
Need for tertiary education models to change
Mining Education Australia director Steve Hall said vocational training centres and universities needed to be prepared to quickly change the way they structured their degree systems.
Professor Hall agreed with Stuart Tonkin that getting people interested in mining careers was an issue that needed to be addressed.
“I think we’ve got two challenges,” he said.
“We need to compete with the Ubers and the Goggles of the world and attract the IT, the mechatronics, the robotics people and get them to look at mining, and get involved in it.
“But we’ve also got to get the mining people to understand what’s really going on in those same disciplines; it’s got to come at it both ways.”
Professor Hall advocated a new approach, known as micro-credentialing to produce suitably skilled workers much quicker.
“It might be a small set of subjects that a chemical engineer or a mechanical engineer or a geologist would do alongside their studies, so they come out with both at the end of just a single degree program.
“Double degree adds another year of study, another year of debt, and another year away from the workforce.
“And I also think the other thing that perhaps isn’t well understood by students is that a lot of the employment [in mining] is going to be with some of these exciting METS companies, whether it’s flying drones or big data analytics.
“Those skill sets are probably going to be in the consulting and service sector areas, not necessarily within the mining companies themselves.”