Embracing the Zoom Economy

Covid has accelerated technology adoption in an industry reluctant to change

As a result of largescale dislocations in society, companies are forced to think differently about how to solve a problem. The pandemic, along with increased pressure from ESG funds, has necessitated a much more open-minded approach from the traditionally reluctant-to-change mining community.

Doug Morrison, CEO of the Centre of Excellence for Mining Innovation (CEMI), observed that prior to the pandemic taking hold, mining companies would often dismiss technologies, commonly expressing that they are uncomfortable with embracing fast paced change. In spite of this hesitancy, Morrison asserts: “The inertia that Covid has brought about creates the opportunity to make changes happen – if the will is there.”

The most obvious transformation occurring over the past year has been that companies have had to adapt and reconfigure workflows to function remotely. While this has been an enormous challenge in some ways, it has also presented an opportunity for inventive companies to solve problems for customers. One such company is Centric Mining Systems, which offers a suite of software tools that integrates data across ecosystems, giving mining companies a clear view into the performance of their mine.

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“NORCAT witnessed a dramatic increase in demand for training and development solutions that can be delivered effectively remotely. Concurrent to that, there has been a significant increase in demand from mining companies to understand opportunities to effectively integrate VR, AR and equipment simulation training into their broader learning and development strategies.”

Don Duval, CEO, NORCAT

Centric’s CEO, Chris Novak, explained that traditionally the answer to many problems in mining has been to send somebody underground or into the pit. However, because of travel restrictions, these people may not be on site, and because of health reasons, they may not want 10 people clustered into a stope. “The concept of using predictive and prescriptive analytics – utilizing technologies like AI to make decisions or recommendations – is now becoming accepted. To do this successfully, you must have a well-managed information support framework,” stated Novak.

Although remote work has been instrumental in enabling companies to continue their operations as normally as possible throughout the pandemic, mining remains a hands-on job. It is essential, therefore, that when employees are present at the mine site, the work environment has precautions in place to ensure the health of workers. This is critical for the sake of fellow employees, their families and the neighboring communities.

Minetell, originally founded to gather intelligence that provides decision-makers with information that improves critical control performance and minimizes exposure to material risks, was able to create a focused version of its enterprise SaaS risk management platform that exclusively measures COVID-19 risk and control performance. According to founder and CEO, Michael Hartley: “By late April 2020, Minetell had the capacity to screen hundreds of people coming in and out of a mine site on a daily basis. This is typically a time-consuming process that is often circumvented. In doing this, Minetell has been able to provide reasonable assurance that healthy people are coming into a healthy work environment.”

Despite the pervasive chatter about innovation being suddenly embraced due to the pandemic, CEMI’s Morrison expressed concern that most of the changes that mining companies have made were with respect to coping with the constraints Covid imposed, rather than improving operations. In his view, the two things are not disconnected, as the future of the industry depends on moving to more autonomous, continuous, production systems. “It is still difficult to see how the mining industry will be able to recruit the necessary talent to push this change forward if the job on offer is working 10 hours a day in the dark, underground, on your own. Repetitive tasks that are currently done manually should be done by the equipment itself, and the people managing this technology should be able to work remotely,” Morrison stressed.

“We believe that it will not just be every OEM working in isolation. But rather, there will be a large degree of interoperability so multiple OEMs can work on the same platform.”

Maarten van Koppen, Product Manager - Mine Operations, MacLean Engineering

Automated everything

It is becoming exceedingly clear that automation of the different processes within a mine stands to be a key driver of profitability and safety in the coming years. Human error is always a substantial risk and, compared to the decision-making time of even the brightest, most alert human operator, the ability of self-operated machines to avoid collisions or notice problems far exceeds any human. This can be said for many tasks within a mine. As a result, companies like Drone Delivery Canada (TSXV:FLT) are developing autonomous technologies that are quick to react in any crisis and are able to access difficult and dangerous areas of a mine. The company has a fleet of unmanned drones that cover a range between 30-200 km and can handle payloads between 4.5 kg for their smallest drone called the Sparrow, while their largest Condor model can haul 180 kg of load.

Michael Zahra, president and CEO of DDC remarked: “There is a strong case for drones in any situation where access is difficult for a variety of reasons, be it distance, quality of roads, seasonal roads, and these are challenges many mining sites face in Canada.”

Zahra continued, outlining that if a company has a large open pit mine with a C$10 million earthmover machine that is down in a remote part of the mine, as it waits for a C$2 part, every minute that it is holding up a billion dollar mining project is costly. “If DDC can transport that replacement part to the earthmover with a drone in five minutes versus somebody in a truck that will take an hour or two, there is real value in choosing the drone. Time is money or time is lives depending on the situation,” he said.

The drones are also able to carry specialized cameras and sensors capable of detecting gas leaks, estimating inventory and stockpiles and performing inspection in high-risk areas.

Another company innovating in the autonomous drone space is SafeSight Exploration. Safesight is attempting to leverage its drone innovation to create a series of underground transformations in shaft maintenance, as well as standard ground-support areas. To achieve this, SafeSight has a trifecta of services that utilizes Lidar and high definition video technologies in drones, ground-based vehicles, rails and robotics. The company has partnered with Agnico Eagle, IAMGOLD, Pan American Silver, Wesdome, Barrick and Vale and is also involved at several of Newmont’s sites. According to SafeSight president, Mike Campigotto: “The same crew can do 300 surveys per year where they previously did 100. There is three times the digital data to make decisions around reconciliation, compliance and GUAC modelling – which changes the operational flow.”

Importantly, the technology is becoming tailor-made to each project and, whereas traditional forensic shaft assessments take 36 hours, SafeSight’s technology can do the same process in four hours, without human risk.

Other companies, such as Maestro Digital Mine, are developing products with a vision to change the way underground mines communicate. By stripping out complexity in the automation sector and by utilizing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and solutions, the company recently released its Zephyr AQS air quality station, which was designed as a lower cost IIoT device that fills 75% of the applications of its flagship Vigilante AQS. Thus far, the product has performed remarkably well and is one of the reasons the company recorded record sales in 2020. When asked about future product development opportunities, Michael Gribbons, co-founder and CEO, noted that Maestro identified a strategy wherein they are seeking to automate anything IIoT that is used in a mine and is considered a fixed asset. “Pumps, ore passes, crushers, fans, doors, regulators, paste fill, hydraulic oil, fuel, compressed air, potable water systems all need automation. All require expensive and complex PLC or DCS systems to integrate and control. Maestro will continue to combine embedded firmware and hardware IIoT edge based devices that strip out this complex and expensive equipment,” Gribbons affirmed.

As for the OEM’s, underground mining equipment solutions provider Maclean Engineering sees big opportunities in automation over the coming five years. “We believe that it will not just be every OEM working in isolation, but rather, there will be a large degree of interoperability so multiple OEMs can work on the same platform,” said Maarten van Koppen, product manager-mine operations at MacLean. In fact, MacLean just commissioned a system at Newcrest’s Cadia mine in Australia, where its water cannon works with its own teleoperation system within the Epiroc Mobilaris traffic management and safety system. “This means that the customer does not end up with a multitude of different systems. Instead, they can utilize what is already being implemented on-site and bring more value to the customer,” van Koppen elaborated.

Image courtesy of Drone Delivery Canada