GIS and remote sensing have been part of the mining industry for long now. But with accurate positioning getting more and more vital, geospatial data and technology are becoming inherent in mines management and modelling software to help the sector put in place a sustainable cost management culture.
“Mining has grown bigger over the past 200 years – bigger plants, bigger trucks, bigger blasts. But the industry itself hasn’t evolved much. Now is the time to make fundamental and dramatic changes.” — Glenn Ives, Americas Mining Leader and Chair for Deloitte Canada
The slump in commodity prices is pinching the mining industry, today more than ever. As demand slumps and cost of mining shoots up, mining companies need to re-evaluate their operating models to ensure that they have the systems and processes leading to a sustainable cost management culture. The decision of starting or continuing a mining operation, addressing the issues of environmental regulations, human safety, government tax policies, local community demands cannot be answered by just looking at the projected commodity market. The other very serious concern for all multinational mining companies is the issue of ‘resource nationalism’ which limits and shackles foreign ownership of mining leases.
Among the top 10 issues listed by a Deloitte report on mining (Tracking the Trends 2014), geospatial technology lends a hand and an arm to address and navigate through more than a couple. For many who are attempting productivity enhancements, innovation appears to be the driving force. One such innovation is the smart use of geospatial data, what with depleting ore bodies and declining ore grades, and new locations in remote corners.
But then geospatial data has always been intrinsic to mining — where the resources are available, where to dig and how to take it out. Whether it is an open cast/pit mine or a deep underground excavation for search and extraction of mineral resources, the entire operation is essentially ‘geo-spatial’ in an operative sense. From staking the claim on a ore body to loading the excavated and extracted material into rail wagons or barges, the mining industry has been utilising geospatial technology, albeit most of the time under different names, which in today’s context is all ‘digital’.
“Today’s economic pressures and volatile markets have forced mining companies to find solutions to correct inefficiencies and reduce losses in every part of their operations, which spurs innovation by necessity,” says Nathan Pugh, Business Area Director, Mining, Trimble.
Among the innovations that the mining industry is beginning to use include the adoption of digital data, such as data-enabled equipment, operating/safety/environmental sensors, and laser scanning or point cloud data. Digital data is being increasingly used to support real-time tracking, surveillance, traffic management, environmental monitoring, various automated routines (e.g. driverless trucks), improved maintenance, and asset management, production monitoring and reporting.
How geotechnology is transforming mining
Conventionally, mineral exploration was done with brute force field traversing, with topographic maps and a Brunton’s transit compass. Today, discovery of sub-surface and hidden ore bodies is achieved through holistic understanding of the genesis of the deposit. It is imperative to decide where not to dig — ever. The synergised use of data gathered from the geologist, geophysicist and geochemist harboured in a spatial ecosystem is the only approach that makes the exploration of new mineral deposits and more important, the location of extensions of working ore deposits, cost effective, efficient and possible.
However, geospatial in mining has moved beyond just basemaps and feature extraction. The availability of rugged mine observation, data collection, monitoring equipment and automation is today commonplace and the software that interfaces them with humans is what gets the most attention. The areas where geospatial has made a difference can be listed from the exploration, mine design, mine operations to support infrastructure like rail head, port design and subsequent monitoring. A very noteworthy sector where geospatial minetech has made the most visible contribution is personnel safety.
“Mining as an industry demands greater and greater accuracy, which has pushed the use of positioning technology into a whole new territory,” says Jason Nitz, Fleet Management Systems Superintendent, Newmont Boddington Gold, Australia. “If you can mine more ore and less waste, and you do this on large volumes, it is bound to have an effect on the bottom line.”
Naturally, as the mining industry begins to transition to a productivity-centric approach, geospatially located digital data is becoming pervasive and extremely influential throughout an entire enterprise. With geospatial data from various sources readily available to the broader enterprise, the mining industry is acknowledging the need to better leverage this digital data to target productivity challenges.
As Dave Body, Solution Executive, Mining, Bentley Systems, points out, “The term we use to describe the above is information mobility — across disciplines and across the entire asset lifecycle. Without information mobility, data languishes on islands, where it becomes stale and obsolete.”
To get the maximum value out of this geospatial information, the enterprise needs to unlock it and expose it to those who require this data to be mined for insights, and to which other algorithms and expert systems can be applied to produce predictive analytics that provide for the basis of increasing production and improving efficiencies. By linking, combining, and providing access to related geospatial datasets, consumers of spatial data can now exploit multiple, diverse datasets in a common geospatially referenced framework.
Today, from the preparation of maps which depict the ‘lay of the land’ or the topography to creating visualisations for stakeholder presentations, geospatial does it all. “For example, one of the mining firms Autodesk has been working with was using Autodesk Navisworks software to help design an entire infrastructure project for a mine. And the mining company took the Navisworks model and brought it to an investors meeting to show them exactly how the mine will look like. The presenter was able to click on any part of the mine and get information about all the infrastructure; and that sold the project,” points out Louis Morasse, Industry Solutions Manager, Autodesk.
The planning phase also involves the rather bureaucratic but essential aspect of obtaining permissions which are governed by regulations. More often than not, regulations are the most variable factor when considered in the global context. Every government has its own norms and “mine proposals when supported by truthful and realistic 3D visualisations have won many a leases,” says Abhijeet Banerjee, a freelance GIS consultant who uses Datamine. Mine modelling also plays a role in planning future exploitation activities and the role of mine modelling in a broad sense is critical. “We have been working with many customers, and strategic partners like Geosoft, Spatial Dimension and aQuire, to help develop regional exploration plans, prospect inventories, lease positions, drilling programmes, etc. But ultimately, it is about 3D modelling of the ore body for exploitation,” comments Geoff Wade, Natural Resources Manager, Esri.
Complex 3D models provide a rich visual insight, but distribution and ease of access to these models is mostly restricted to the software power user, a static screenshot or a video file that cannot be queried, points out Dan Haigh, Natural Resources Industry Director, Pitney Bowes. Interactive and enriching 3D project updates provide deeper insight and intelligence within a simple Web browser, resulting in the ability for stakeholders to be able to challenge assumptions, confirm theories and feel at ease that they are making true data led decisions.
Various types of mine management systems survey, measure, monitor, report and analyse data for more effective management of processes and resources. This is the domain of remote sensing, remote imaging, processing and visualisation software that report data that is actionable by mine supervisors. Mine management systems are widely adopted by large-scale mining operations in the highest priority areas for safety and productivity — capital-intensive, mobile and hazardous haulage operations, adds Pugh. Fleet management systems, vehicle health monitoring systems, truck spotting systems, operator fatigue monitoring systems, and collision avoidance systems are all geared to reduce risk to operators and ground personnel, keep schedules to plan, reduce maintenance and repair costs, and enable miners to optimise the performance and investments. These systems are built on a technology infrastructure requiring positioning and wireless communications. Other types of mine management systems that employ spatial technologies include slope stability monitoring systems using various combinations of laser, radar, geotechnical, and GNSS technology and environmental monitoring systems for regulatory compliance with clean air and water standards.
The role of digital data
Data such as geological structure, geotechnical data about the rock type, spatial distribution of the ore grade and a lot more, will be highly sought by a mining enterprise. With the advent of aerial surveys using unmanned flying systems (UAS) and point-cloud creation technologies such as aerial laser scanners (ALS), terrestrial laser scanners (TLS) and mobile laser scanners (MLS) capable of quickly producing accurate point clouds of the mine in-progress, stitching and spatially locating as well as updating the geological data is being done in almost real time.
Today, laser scanners are also used for automated volume measurement of stockpiles, providing up-to-date inventory that reﬂects current stock levels. Volume measurements require regular surveys of the same area followed by a comparison to a reference plane or surface, which through conventional methods is resource intensive, and therefore, costly.
The handling, storing and analysing humongous volumes of spatially referenced geodata obtained from such scanners — in the truest sense Big Data — along with inputs from the mine survey teams is what is considered ‘raw material’, which can be ‘mined’ for insights and to which expert systems can be applied to produce predictive analytics. To understand the quantum of digital data generated today, a figure of 2.4 terabytes per minute from Rio Tinto’s Pilbara project is a statement in itself.
South Africa’s Anglo American embarked on an ambitious ‘Geospatial Integration Project’ which provided a single management system for geospatial data, workflows and reports. Utilising the Bentley Map, ProjectWise Geospatial Server, and Bentley Geo Web Publisher, they achieved time improvements of 4,000%, says Body.
However, there remain teething issues. While mine management software and Big Data is taking big strides, a substantial number of mining companies do not have the manpower resources to use the data to the full potential. “The reporting is also very poor with these systems and they require custom reporting to make them valuable,” says Richard Musselman, Operations Support Engineer & Chief Mine Surveyor, Kinross Gold Corporation. This also requires somebody on the local staff to have a strong background in Microsoft SQL databases and reporting. The other avenue is to contract directly with manufacturer but this is costly and results are not always what you paid for.
Haigh feels even though satellites, drones and LiDAR are producing high-quality datasets for mining companies, the software performance has been frustratingly slow due to the sheer file size, resulting in the analyst having to clip the data to make it manageable.
What to look for when buying a software
The million dollar question that harangues any mining company is deciding on which software to procure. The unfortunate consideration and weight attributed to the actual monetary cost almost always leads to a failed implementation of ‘geospatial solutions’. Body from Bentley lists four important considerations before taking the geospatial plunge:
- A review of respective organisational vision so as to determine whether current systems are capable of supporting and delivering towards this vision. Specifically, they should review the impact an exponential increase in digital data (i.e., Big Data) might have on their systems and whether these systems can efficiently and effectively manage, maintain, and disseminate data, not just the quantum generated today, but also the projected increase.
- Think of information mobility since data and information are key enablers in support of productivity and optimisation. Having access to the right information, in the right format, at the right time provides the fundamentals for informed decision making. Unlocking this data and information from silos is critical for today’s and tomorrow’s mining operations, and the selected solution should be capable of standing up to these demands.
- Review of currently used survey solutions because an organisation’s survey solution needs to support today’s requirements; but additionally, the survey solution needs to prepare for tomorrow’s needs. As the mine surveyor transitions to digital data (and Big Data) the organisation will need a survey solution that supports both traditional and future workflows from a wide variety of ‘survey sensors’ (and manufacturers). For a surveyor, the distinction between ‘field’ and ‘office’ is set to blur. As mobile computing processing power continues to improve and communications to and from the field also improve, the industry is set to see many more surveys completed at the ‘point of work’.
- Consider spatial enablement though typically, spatially located digital data is considered a totally separate application to be handled exclusively by a GIS. However, spatially located digital data will be created by many and from various sources. The use of an industry standard database, such as Oracle Spatial and or SQL Server Spatial is recommended. This spatial ability is further enhanced by enabling data editing to be performed in any Open Geospatial Consortium standards-based GIS that supports viewing and editing directly in the Oracle Spatial or SQL Server Spatial database. Therefore, considering mining software solutions for mine design and survey which will operate on native database formats for Oracle and SQL to offer a truly open, spatially enabled capability that can be leveraged from any open GIS technology will hold good in the coming years.
How much customisation is required
It would be prudent to accept that most operations which benefit from geospatial analysis follow a common basis and logical workflow. Except for very specialised ‘machine automation’ requirements, standard issue geospatial suites would generally be good to go. So, though no mine is alike, Dinakar Devireddy, Head of Innovation Program at the India-headquartered Cyient (formerly Infotech), states that “it does not mean we should have a mining software customised for each mine and commodity”. Currently, COTS (commercially-off-the-shelf) mine planning software are capable of handling all the complex work and mining companies are increasingly seeking to integrate these software tools to their existing enterprise level software to achieve efficiencies in their workflow and cut costs. “For example, mining organisations increasingly want to integrate mine planning with mine scheduling, stock management, logistics, SAP etc. to be efficient,” he adds.
As a large part of the ‘non-specialist’ GIS training available today has a significant quantum of familiarisation with COTS like ArcGIS, many mining customers today use Esri software as it is straight out of the box. “Indeed that is how most customers begin their first GIS projects — maybe it is to map out a new prospect area, a drilling programme, or a lease position,” says Wade.
Over time, such projects can become more complex, information and workflows need integrating, and hopefully the mining project becomes successful, long-standing, and requires more formal information management practices applied. A GIS platform today needs to be flexible enough to provide a simple starting point for some, and a rigorous corporate (global) platform for others. No customisation is required, but plenty is possible. To be successful, the software provider will have to find ways to easily and smoothly infuse the rapidly changing technologies and demands from the mining sector, as the very idea of ‘a change’ taxes the end user in a mining organisation to his limits, says D.U. Vyas, Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation, India.
The role of in-house development of geospatial software is surprisingly limited, more so considering the substantial investment and training that is required. The aspect of in-house development is viewed by generic GIS software developers in a very different way. Wade feels that they both (in-house and COTS) have a role to play. “We hear from many corporations that they need easy-to-deploy, configurable ‘template-style’ solutions, specifically focused on their common business functions. That is a challenge, of course, because not everyone has exactly the same business challenges — but there are some core workflow functions that are common across many departments and companies.”
Esri therefore has been working with its user community to deliver a core (COTS) spatial platform capability, and more recently a set of configurable/extendable workflow oriented templates, in order to give users a jump-start on specific workflow applications they may require. “It is our joint intention that users can then much more simply ‘configure’ from a template, rather than start from scratch to build a desired application. I believe today’s approach is COTS first, configure second, in-house development only if absolutely required,” says Wade.
Pitney Bowes, which has software tailor-made and customised for the industry, also offers an easy MapBasic programming language which has seen companies effortlessly develop a number of custom applications. When implementing technology it is important to be cautious of “vendor lock in”, says Haigh. Pitney Bowes offers an open approach that allows consistency and control, but not at the expense of integration and collaboration. The methodology allows scalability and agility, and far greater freedom to select add on products from the best providers, rather than being forced to purchase a costly, heavy, ‘corporate GIS’ from one provider.
Devireddy feels that ‘mine planning software’ are different class of software tools with distinct features and tools, and GIS engines are part of these software. “In-house development is tricky and complex, it’s not advisable unless there is strong justification to do so, because the product development lifecycle is higher and requires high level domain expertise. This is the reason one finds huge entry barriers for any in-house development.”
RoI or getting back the moolah
The blunt question that the bean counter often asks is “So when do we start getting back the moolah?” Though software is prohibitively costly — upwards of $10,000 and again additional modules cost more — RoI is assured within few months, depending on the mine and operations size, believes Devireddy.
“Private companies typically go faster than governments because companies are motivated by a need to have RoI as quickly as possible, especially in these difficult and challenging times,” says Morrase. Naturally, mining companies today are very tech savvy. If they can implement something for a million dollar investment to save $100 million in operating costs, they will do it aggressively.
The quantum of investment required depends on the size of the mine as well as its goals, says Stefan Naumann, GNSS Business Manager, Topcon Europe Positioning. The goal will be influenced by the market as well as competitive situations within the mine industry. For single mines to get quick results that help their decision making process, the investment could be anything between $80,000 up to several $100,000. “If you take the question of quantum of investment to the entire industry, it requires to having people on the ground with a good understanding of geographic-based decision-making processes as well as geospatial knowledge. This requires well-educated people in the GIS/geospatial sector to cater to the increasing demands of this industry,” he adds.
Data is the currency of exploration. Huge amount of funds, resources and effort go into effectively analysing, interpreting and modelling data for a project. “So it is important that you make your data work as hard as possible for you. By presenting 2D and 3D spatial information via the web to key stakeholders (communities, investors and internal decision makers) it maximises the value and RoI of that data,” underlines Haigh, adding an organisation not using GIS often runs the risk of making some very poor, ill-informed decisions.
The common practice in developed markets is doing an aerial survey even before setting foot into a mining area. Safety aspects apart, this means huge cost savings. Each drill costs around $80,000, so if you can eliminate that risk completely through technology, that’s a straight RoI which could run into millions. “Larger the size [of the project], quicker the RoI,” adds Devireddy.
This is also the reason for the rather disappointing level of adoption of geospatial technologies by small players or ‘juniors’ as referred to in the Deloitte report. Because of the high cost of these tools, the rollout to the mining sector has been slow. Also, since many of these systems require a higher level of training and maintenance, to use them to their full potential has caused some resistance in the mining sector.
The high cost of warehousing or even maintaining critical spare parts makes these systems unattractive to the smaller mining companies, says Musselman, who also believes that safety and reduction in rework is definitely one of the major paybacks. “The surveyor is not required to visit dangerous slopes often and can safely perform the job from a safe distance using reflector less technology … which saves time and fuel,” he adds.
The main benefit is increased production, improved recovery and reduced cost, but these can also contribute to other secondary areas, feels Nitz, who is also quick to add that there has been no reduction in the manpower associated with using geospatial technology as ultimately a person is still required as part of the process. “In the past they may have the need to know how to do the job manually, now they need to know how to enable the technology to do the job. Whilst that is quite a simplistic explanation, it shows how the evolution is occurring and the mindset of parochial miners is changing.” However, Musselman believes many of these systems require a higher level of training and maintenance to use them to their full potential, which has impeded its adoption in the mining sector.
The way ahead
Technology used today is evolving very fast and is being used in areas that nobody thought it would be used for. “Who, a few years ago, would have thought we would have trucks without drivers operating in a mine?” asks Morrase, who, however, underlines the need for very skilled people with the knowhow of mining and geospatial.
Agrees Musselman: “You might lose a surveyor from the field duties but need to add manpower to hardware or office to keep system running and handle all of the data and create files for the field.” The big problem is very few of such skilled people would want to work in remote, hostile areas where typically mines are located.
Another big challenge is the willingness of mining companies to change. While the technology can change quickly, mining companies are generally not that good at adapting to change at the same rate. “Justifying this change is often a challenge the average user cannot communicate; so being able to quantify this in meaningful terms is vital and requires a good understanding of the business,” says Nitz. The mining industry is still living by the old saying of ‘We always did it this way’ and geospatial companies generally do not understand their customer base very well,” points out Muesselman.
When mining industry adopts a productivity- centric approach, geospatially located digital data will become pervasive and extremely influential throughout the entire enterprise. As the sources which generate spatial data proliferate, the applications which consume this data and convert it to usable knowledge to target specific productivity challenges in the mining domain will be highly sought after. Technology trends and proliferation of geospatial data require knowledge and experience for accurate analysis and interpretation. In hands of an expert, geospatial data becomes geospatial intelligence.
As Pugh sums it up, “In view of the success stories and ongoing economic realities, investment in these technologies is high on the planning and budgetary outlooks for most large-scale operations.” And this is only expected to continue and increase with time.
Executive Editor, Geospatial World Magazine
Dr Hrishikesh Samant,
Editor – Mining (Honorary) Geospatial Media and Communications