IoT in Mining: Deep Connectivity

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IoT in Mining: Deep Connectivity

Almost a mile below ground in an iron mine in northern Sweden, human operators control what is going on and plan their attack on valuable seams of iron ore. But unlike the hands-on extraction of decades past, these mining professionals are sitting in an office a thousand kilometers away, relying on IoT sensors, cameras, underground Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks, and a powerful private cloud to guide their blasting and tunneling in real time with IoT in Mining.

by Eamon Earls

Europe built its Industrial Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries by converting natural resources into valuable new products like steel, chemicals, and fertilizers. Now, as some pundits see a looming Industry 4.0 powered by the insights offered through connected IoT devices, one of the continent’s fundamental industries is beginning to adapt to changing technology.

Soon, most mines are going to have Wi-Fi mesh networks with very good connectivity.
Daniel Palmer, COO Datacloud
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Mines operate in almost every European country, extracting coal, iron ore, bauxite, kaolin clay, gravel, and many other valuable commodities. The industry has adopted significant mechanization over the last 50 years but, until recently, was slower moving in its adoption of IT. The rise of IoT in other industries has spurred new thinking about the role of technology for enhancing efficiency, safety, and compliance with environmental regulations.

Digging a Hole: IoT in Mining

Although it has the potential to be applied to mine safety to detect dangerous gas or indications of a potential tunnel collapse, IoT is mainly being used to help mines plan and become more efficient.
“Basically, companies drill hundreds of thousands of holes in the ground, fill them with explosive, blow it up, and then dig the fragmented rock pile. Globally, mining companies are responsible for $400bn a year in operational spending [much of it on basic extraction],” says Daniel Palmer, chief operating officer of Datacloud, an IoT services company focused on improving the characterization of the geology of mines.

IoT in Mining - Drilling for Data - Source ©: Datacloud

Drilling for Data: Sensors on drill strings gather data and combine it with existing measurement systems to improve blasting plans. GPS tracking also makes for better machine health.

The company deploys sensors on drill strings to gather data and combine it with preexisting measurements to inform blasting plans. Datacloud works closely with European mining companies, chiefly those headquartered in London, that often have the most technologically sophisticated operations in very large mines in Canada or Australia. In addition to sensors on drill strings, vehicle and equipment manufacturers are at the head of the pack, with heavy-haul trucks and excavators being increasingly equipped with GPS tracking and machine-health tracking.

IoT in Mining - Smart Bolt - source ©: Ericsson

Smart Bolt: Rock bolts stabilize mining tunnels by distributing stress evenly. For Ericsson, a team at Luleå University of Technology developed a bolt containing sensors and electronics that senses stress changes and vibrations and can warn of future failures.

Whether for fleet management or characterizing an area’s geology, IoT is also starting to make its way deep below ground following its initial adoption in near-surface, open-pit mines. “Most mines are going to have a Wi-Fi mesh network, with connectivity being pushed into every corner in the mine. We assume most mines are already going to have pretty good connectivity in the pit [with GPS, Wi-Fi, and LTE connectivity],” says Palmer.

IoT in Mining: Reaching new Depths

Sweden and Norway may be the European hubs of IoT in mining, with deep, advanced iron mines above the Arctic Circle. Swedish equipment makers like Sandvik and Epiroc are rigging their machines with IoT devices while a telecom team at Luleå University of Technology, working with Ericsson, produced sensor-equipped “smart” rock bolts. Swedish state-owned iron mining and processing giant LKAB (Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB) has put the technology into practice. Founded in the 1890s, LKAB operates mines that stretch more than a kilometer below ground in Kiruna and Malmberget, as well as owning ports and mineral processing facilities.
“[IoT] isn’t some fluffy buzzword from the industry like Industry 4.0 or digitization. To us, it’s a very tangible, practical thing we use on a daily basis on our way to fully automated underground mines, which is where we’re headed,” said Tim Peco, development engineer at LKAB Wassara, who helps to lead the company’s future drilling system initiative. The goal of the project is to create an advanced drill rig capable of more efficient curved and steered drill holes with sensors and connectivity.
“We are 1,000 kilometers south of the rig [which is almost a kilometer below ground and controlled from Stockholm]. For the moment the IoT deployed on this rig is simply a two-way link with surveying and communication systems. There is a steering and real-time surveying system,” Peco explained.
LKAB was early to adopt Wi-Fi deep below ground and now has LTE as well. Although the rig is run from Stockholm, eventually the command center for such machines will be in Kune closer to the mine site.

IoT in Mining - Digging Deeper - source ©: LKAB

Digging Deeper: As current seams are mined out, mining companies need to dig deeper. LKAB is teaming up with ABB, Epiroc, Combitech, and Volvo Group to set a new world standard for sustainable mining at great depths.

Data from surveying computers gets uploaded by Wi-Fi to a locally hosted database and eventually passed off to a cloud service within LKAB’s intranet for processing in an Aspen Tech data analytics system. LKAB isn’t alone in the Swedish mining sector as a user of IoT. Boliden, another major iron mining firm, is using Aqua Ductus’ IoT water monitoring equipment to track potential mine runoff into streams and Sandvik is operating an IoT test mine in Tampere, Finland, using the underground-capable Nokia Digital Automation Platform.

Gaining experience

IoT in European mines isn’t restricted to Scandinavia. In 2014, Canadian company Dundee Precious Metals managed to achieve a self-reported 400 percent production increase in its Chelopech gold mine in Bulgaria by adding sensors to conveyor belts and lighting, and RFID tags to workers’ helmets for better asset tracking.
Dundee reportedly gained valuable experience during the implementation, such as resolving radio-signal scatter caused by large deposits of quartz in the mine shafts, which it subsequently applied to its mine in Armenia. Back in 2008, the European Commission created the Raw Materials Initiative with 26 corporate and university participants focused on improving raw material efficiency and achieved a 17 percent increase in some deep deposit mines.
Mining Magazine and Mining Journal (both published by Aspermont Print Publications) are slated to co-host a Future of Mining EMEA conference in London, during June 2020, with planned sessions on IoT, automation, and analytics.

Going Underground

IoT is gaining a seat at the table in European mining circles but still has significant room for growth. “One issue that underground mines face when monitoring critical processes is that the specific asset being monitored is located underground. This can make sensor installation difficult. For example, attaching condition-monitoring sensors on a conveyor that is deep underground requires sending an engineer underground, which can be expensive,” says Jeffrey den Outer, business development manager at Semiotic Labs, a Dutch producer of motor-monitoring equipment.

 Nokia Future X - source ©: Nokia

Mining the Future: Future X architecture for mining by Nokia Bell Labs aims at creating an intelligent network to help mining companies adapt to demand, control operational costs, and boost worker safety.

“The mining industry in general can be quite conservative when it comes to adopting new technology. This means it is important to focus on results and ROI as quickly as possible after installation, therefore helping to quickly build trust in the product,” he adds.

IoT in Mining - Meeting of Minds - source ©: EMEA

Meeting of Minds: Heads of mine operations, tech companies, and service start-ups meet up regularly at the About the Future of Mining Conference, held last year in London.

“[IoT] is invaluable to us. Planners sitting many miles away can send plans to execute. Someone sitting in an office with three rigsteering systems can operate three machines. This will only get more necessary to have the deeper we go and the more environmental restrictions and norms we have to abide by,” LKAB’s Peco says. “Probably the highest value place for IoT is nuclear reactors or space exploration where you can’t send people – but mining is a close second. Commercial or retail work can be done by a person cost-effectively but with a location in the middle of Siberia where you need to fly people in and out, or potentially hazardous air and temperatures thousands of meters underground, IoT is absolutely worth the investment,” says Palmer at Datacloud.

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