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IoT and the future of mining

As the world rapidly becomes a place of interconnected devices, all of which produce data and are able to communicate with one another, mining will evolve to the point where this mesh of connectivity improves production and makes each and every site more profitable. Between predictive maintenance, autonomous sites working around the clock, business intelligence bringing deep insights into operations and productivity, there are many benefits to a modern, IoT-connected mine site.

According to leading analyst firm Gartner, there are around 8.4 billion Internet-connected devices in the world, a figure which is forecast to rise to 20 billion by 2020. All of them are producing data, which can be analysed and used for assessing performance on many levels. With so many integrated elements of an enterprise now working together, one device is capable of ‘learning’ from another – known as machine-to-machine or M2M. This might be a sensor node communicating data back to a software program, a thermometer in an automated truck, or SCADA software sending information back to a server in a capital city. The fact that remote machines have the power to communicate as part of an integrated digital enterprise is especially relevant to the mining industry, where many companies have widely-dispersed physical assets. Better communication between mine sites and headquarters plugs many information gaps and allows the company to better evaluate the performance of a site, right down to each individual tool or component operating there.

Daniel Ng, Senior Director of APAC at leading big data platform company Cloudera, suggests that: “IoT is having a positive effect on many industries and facets of life; it is connecting people and devices in more relevant ways and making them more useful to one another. Technology is building upon technology, and the information that comes out of the exchange is hugely useful and insightful, teaching us more about how our assets and industries are running, and giving us very precise feedback about productivity and how we can control it.”

Looking directly at some of the components of an advanced, IoT-connected mine site, driverless trucks stand out as one of the biggest developments in recent years. Rio Tinto has introduced automated vehicles up in its Pilbara operations, largely controlled by workers back in Perth. Each of these trucks is not only controlled remotely, which moves miners away from the proverbial ‘coalface’ and out of harm’s way, but they are also collecting and feeding back data about how they are running, what loads they are carrying, how fast they are travelling between drilling equipment and conveyors – all of which can be hugely helpful for predictive maintenance and overall productivity.

When it comes to predictive maintenance, autonomous vehicles are able to send by-the-second data about the tyre pressure in their wheels, running temperature, oil levels and much more, thereby offering deep insights into their operating condition. This allows analysts and engineers to map out patterns of vehicle behaviour, and allow staff to perform maintenance at optimum times – before a vehicle breaks down and has to be taken out of circulation for a period, which affects productivity – but not just on a static roster of servicing such as has been the case in the past, where vehicles are pulled from service at regular intervals. Big data collected from IoT machines and devices, therefore, allows for a much more precise, statistical evaluation of a machine’s required maintenance schedule and can keep it in operation for longer, and out of service for shorter lengths of time.

Drones (also referred to as UAV’s – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are also fast becoming a vital part of modern mining operations, and of course are also IoT-connected devices feeding information back to central operations. Again, mine safety is improved here, since drones can feedback spatial data from high above a mining site, keeping human beings away from potentially dangerous areas.

Drones are also faster and more efficient, capable of feeding back big data sets via Wi-Fi connections as they accurately map large areas of a mine site. There is no downtime required for surveyors to stop what they are doing and move around a pit, so productivity is increased. There are fewer man-hours, no need for external imagery to be sourced and less need for expensive equipment to be driven into a site; so drones are able to save a lot of money as well as time and effort.

Sonar is another modern mining component capable of feeding back large volumes of data to a central location, again collecting and collating data in real-time. Used in conjunction with other IoT-connected devices such as video, lasers, gas detection equipment and 3-Dimensional mapping systems, it is possible to very accurately map out underground locations, test for water and gasses, determine rock composition, recover lost assets and generally improve safety and productivity, often in areas where it is unsafe for humans to venture. All sensors such as these are interconnected, allowing the company to form a very comprehensive fabric or data on which to base decision-making.

Some of our larger mining companies are also experimenting with autonomous drilling systems, which, like autonomous vehicles, are capable of operating around-the-clock with minimal human intervention, apart from trained staff in central locations overseeing operations.

“The amount of data emanating from a modern mine is staggering and provides a very rich framework from which to examine productivity. Information collated from big data coming in from nodes and sensors in the ground, through to big machines feeding information back to HQ, then right down to the movement of staff through buildings and mine sites, a mine these days is a very high-tech and connected mesh of smart devices and components all working in tandem. The trick is to harness that information and make it useful,” said Jeff Gallagher, Senior VP of sales at big data and Business Intelligence platform Datameer, who specialise in bringing all elements of a big data solution together.

So the trick to making all these IoT devices and machines work to their potential is to have a proper plan, which brings as many elements as possible together in one spot and makes them useful to the company.

Sidney Minassian, Founder & CEO of big data specialists, Contexti, suggests that: “Every situation is different, and requires a proper understanding of the needs of the company, the many data points in play, and how to connect them all together. Then we need to find out how best to present that information to the people who will be analysing it, so that they can start to produce meaningful statistics and examine patterns of data in order to harness and structure the organisation’s operations in the best manner possible.”

The proliferation of IoT does not stop at machinery however. Staff members are also adding to the richness of data that is extruded from a mine site, using their personal ID and access credentials to open doors, enter secure areas and even transact at facility-run cafes and other point-of-sale sites. A miner can access a shuttle bus from the airport using an ID card, use the same credential to enter their donga, and have the air-conditioning turn on automatically as they enter. Meals can be served and recorded by a touch of the same credential, vending machines can dispense drinks, gymnasiums and leisure facilities can be accessed, lockers, printers and other hardware can all be activated with a touch of the smart card. The same card can then allow access to a mine site or operational building, recording time and attendance as the miner enters and leaves. It can be set to deny access to certain areas at specific times – such as locking down an area for blasting for example, or in the case of a spillage or hazardous conditions. The same credential can record a miner’s licenses to operate machinery, and allow or deny access to machines, and can also record OH&S records, which can be scanned by operatives to quickly check staff credentials in the field.

“All of these transactions act as data capture points, and can bring a wealth of benefits to a secure facility,” said Steve Katanas, Director for South APAC at industry-leading access control company HID Global. “Computers and cloud storage (logical access control) can be accessed in the same manner, and all this information is able to be used to protect a complex site such as a mining facility, building up a converged, secure ecosystem. Access control goes much further than the single secure perimeter these days. The collected information can also be used to build up patterns of human behaviour on site, making life safer, easier and more productive for staff at work in otherwise tough conditions.”

Daniel Ng from Cloudera agrees, adding that: “There are many data extrusion points in a technical mining facility, and to date there are a lot of companies that have data sitting in silos, or worse still locked away in separate systems. The trick is to get that data into the one platform, and then make use of it.”

There are of course new complexities that come with this new ability to collate data. Security is no longer a matter of keeping bad people out of a building or mine site, and data security is no longer as simple as keeping a PC safe from viruses or malware.

Kane Lightowler, Managing Director for APAC at endpoint security specialists Carbon Black, said: “Latest statistics show that more than 2.8 billion people will be connected to the Internet of Things in 2017, rising to 3.4 billion-plus next year. Such astronomical numbers give cyber-criminals an almost infinite number of devices – often poorly protected –to target during attacks. A strong cybersecurity infrastructure mandates the deployment of more than just antivirus software and firewalls. Cybercriminals have long advanced their methods of attacks beyond these traditional lines of defence and companies need to beef up their cybersecurity technology.

Today both public and private sectors should look to Next-Generation Antivirus (NGAV) and Next Generation Endpoint Security (NGES), which deliver full visibility to drive their detection and response strategies. Just as companies conduct regular fire drills to ensure that employees know how to respond appropriately to a fire incident to minimise damage, they can similarly apply routines to a cybersecurity incident response plan. Employees at the IT frontline should be trained to minimise and contain the initial signs of a cyber intrusion, preventing it from escalating to a major breach.”

So IoT is bringing a host of new ways for mining companies to save time and money while making a site more efficient and productive. It is making life safer for staff, and improving the quality of life for miners and support staff in remote areas. With care to avoid unwanted breaches of cyber defence structures, and careful consideration of access control measures to keep a facility safe, there are great gains to be made from the data contained and collected by each and every node within an advanced mine. Unlocking the power of this data will be key to moving Australian mining into the next age.



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