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Mining for more

Gone are the days when conversations about commodity prices were confined to industry analysts. Today, mining is front page news – every day and across the globe. For mining companies, this greater visibility comes with greater responsibility.— Tracking the trends 2012, Deloitte

Mining is at the forefront of the global economy and often an indicator of its health. Population growth and urbanisation in emerging markets, coupled with current requirements in the developed world, have created unprecedented demand for minerals and metals.

The increased output of metals and their value have resulted in the rise in value of the global metal and industrial minerals mining industry from $214 billion in 2000 to $644 billion by 2010, reports the International Council on Mining & Metals, which has also found that the demand for minerals and metals is directly proportional to the material standard of living. The effects on metal demands are dramatic as populous countries such as China and India undergo rapid development and urbanisation phases. Not surprising then that the world’s top 40 mining companies invested $98 billion in capital projects in 2011 and planned for a further $140 billion for 2012 (PwC).

However, with the ongoing economic downturn and uncertainty in the markets, the mining sector, like all others, is feeling the pinch — diminishing investments and plunging stock prices are prompting across-the-board cost cuttings, thereby exposing them to a range of competing trends and rapidly changing global business environment.

“Softening commodity prices, higher input costs, and volatile currencies are putting pressure on margins,” says Tom Albanese, CEO, Rio Tinto. Against this backdrop, miners need to maintain investment pipeline in the midst of growing safety, environmental and community concerns as deposits become remote, and high crude oil prices and wage inflation drive up operating costs.

Tech enablement

The mining industry is primarily dependant on data. “Information and spatial reference are essential through all phases of mineral production, from exploration through construction, operation and mine site closure,” emphasises Prof Jozef Dubinski, Chairman, World Mining Congress.

Compared to engineering designs in other fields, mines have more dynamic assets which are under constant pressure by natural and economic forces. Geospatial data allows planners to prepare for the staged development of a mine and react rapidly to slope hazards or when actual ore grades differ from expected, explains Nathan Pugh, Business Area Director for Mining, Trimble.

In the background of increasing demand and diminishing deposits, discovering new sources ahead of the competition is the key for miners. In addition to exploration, remote sensing data can also help monitor the progress of mining and waste depositing on dumps by photogrammetric calculation of excavated volumes, stability of an area near the mine by regular interferometric measurements, environmental changes in surrounding areas, points out Lena Halounová, Department of Mapping and Cartography Faculty of Civil Engineering in Prague. The final phase of the mining activity, reclamation, can also be controlled by using remote sensing data to detect forest reclamation quality, and interferometric data for the stability control of newly created land morphology etc. Remote sensing data covers large areas in discrete moments, offering repetitiveness and comparativeness, says Halounová, adding they are irreplaceable and the cheapest data for regular control and change detection.

Further, exploration requires analysis of different types of data such as satellite imagery, digital photo mosaics, geophysics, surface geology studies, subsurface and cross-section interpretations and images, and existing borehole locations, which can be analysed by a GIS, explains Geoff Wade, Natural Resources Industry Manager, Esri. Additionally, large mines need versatile, workflow-oriented GIS applications to manage land rights and global business portfolios, and ensure safety.

However, the actual return on investment kicks in only in the production stage. The stage involves ore extraction and according to Dr Ryan Keenan, Project Manager, Leica Geosystems, it is here the whole spectrum of geospatial technologies are used in harmony to continuously model, survey, monitor and report on the mine environment. Fleet management systems track the movement of vehicles, from drills and dozers to dump trucks. Regular surveying, scanning and monitoring is carried out on major tasks. Scanning systems are used to perform as-built surveys of processing plant interiors, conveyor systems, shafts and stockpiles.

In the production phase, positioning and communications infrastructure provide precision positioning throughout the mine, and augmentation systems are used in deep-surface mines prone to GPS/ GNSS outages, adds Pugh. Safety is also addressed by slope and deformation monitoring of sidewalls, dams and structures. Underground solutions include drill positioning and tunnel scanning and surface comparison.

The world’s largest mining company BHP Billiton uses the entire range of technology such as remote sensing, GPS, aerial surveys and a GIS system as part of its workflow. The advantage is that it enables rapid, flexible assessments which yield an easy-to-interpret visual product as an output — a digital or hardcopy map — and also provides data storage and maintenance within the system, says Gary Brassington, Environment Manager, BHP Billiton Illawarra Coal.

Mining the benefits of g-tech

They may not know it by the term ‘geospatial’, but all mining giants are either lining up significant investments for or have already embraced well-proven measurement technologies for precise and reliable geospatial positioning.

In addition to effective decision making and competitive advantage, new technologies in automation and machine control provide huge productivity gains immediately. Mining giant Rio Tinto has a fleet of driverless trucks which use GNSS to transport ore at a mine site in Australia. Now, the company plans to spend another $483 million to make its trains driverless. It could save about $72 million per annum, cut workforce by 600 and reduce costs by 30 cents per tonne of iron ore if 50% of its trucks are automated.

On the other hand, Brazil’s Vale, world’s second largest mining company, has invested $8 billion for a ‘truckless’ system of long conveyor belts by automating part of the world’s largest iron ore mine at Carajás Serra Sul in the Amazon using GPS. The solution also enables automation of the recovery and piling through satellite positioning and 3D scanning. The process takes about 100 trucks off the site, reducing diesel consumption by 77%. In 2011, Vale’s production was 109.8 million metric tonne (mmt), which is likely to touch 230 mmt following full automation of the section in 2016.

Coal India uses geospatial technology in the pre-mining phase, surveying, exploration and compiling baseline data of environmental situation and land-use patterns; as also real-time trip counting system at opencast mines, truck movement monitoring etc. The world’s largest coal producer is planning to install GPSbased vehicle tracking by March 2014 after an internal study showed losses could run over $841 if any of its 170-tonne truck remained idle for half-an-hour. This would be double if the truck was of 240-tonne capacity. According to Chairman Narsing Rao, Coal India is open to further emerging ones too to meet its ambitious production targets, including 70 expansion/new projects in the next five years.

Coal India subsidiary Central Mine Planning & Design Institute Limited (CMPDI) has initiated mapping of all major coalfields using satellite data. “Integration of remote sensing data with airborne, surface and subsurface geological, geophysical and geotechnical data on GIS provides useful information for mineral exploration,” says Narendra Singh, General Manager (Geomatics), CMPDI.

South Africa’s Exxaro is using longrange laser scanners to support a range of expansion projects. The scanners are used to survey stockpiles for volume verification, provide height analysis on earth works and blasting, and collecting highly accurate measurements for terrain mapping and modelling. “I was given the task of looking for cost-effective solutions that would enable us to cope with the increased workload without the need for additional surveyors,” says Thys Smith, Chief Surveyor at Exxaro’s Grootegeluk Coal Mine. Laser scanning was the obvious solution with cost, safety, accuracy, speed of operation and confidence in the data as deciding factors. The technology will also allow Exxaro to manage risk, minimise surveyor contact with moving equipment and potential fall of grounds, and reduce the need to work at height.

“Terrestrial laser scanners play a big role in the lifespan of the extraction process, continually documenting the site to provide real-time, 3D analysis of materials, volumes, structures, topography and safety,” says Thomas Gaisecker, Senior Manager International Sales, Riegl Laser Measurement Systems Gaisecker. A long-range laser scanner can survey an entire mine site within an hour against the traditional time requirement of weeks. The systems are fast enough to capture large areas, accurate at long-range measurements and can measure pit mines as wide as 4 km or even more.

Miranda Gold Corp, a gold exploration company with operations in Nevada, US and Colombia, has invested more than $100,000 in incorporating cutting-edge technology. “Our entire operation is based on geospatial technology, from field to office,” says Brian R. Cellura, Senior Geologist and Generative Manager. Use of geospatial technology has enabled it to develop an efficient exploration programme, resulting in a $700,000-a-year strategic alliance with Agnico Eagle for exploration in Colombia.

Kinross Gold Corporation, which has projects across Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Ghana, Mauritania, Russia and the US, has witnessed drastic rise in productivity and reduction in costs after adopting these technologies at its Round Mountain gold mine, says Richard Musselman, Operations Support Engineer/Chief Mine Surveyor. The Round Mountain has a modular mining dispatch system for fleet management which uses satellite positioning while loading equipment, drills, and dozers use high-precision GNSS receivers. The receivers, robotic total stations, and a radar system monitor highwall and slope stability, keeping people and equipment safe from rock fall hazards and allow for steeper pit designs, lowering production costs. “This requires less training than before and also means less man hours on the job,” adds Musselman.

Fortescue Metals Group, the World’s fourth largest iron ore producer, has implemented a new geospatial mapping system as part of an $8.4-billion plan to treble operations by 2013. “We are aiming for a new, secure and efficient way of operation to improve workflow efficiency and decision making,” says GIS superintendent Jen Thomson.

Australia-based Arrium Mining has export port facilities at Whyalla with current sales capacity of over 6-million tonnes per annum (mtpa) and work is underway to expand this to 12 mtpa. GIS and spatial data management services play a crucial support role here. Grant Young of Coffey International, which provides GIS solutions to Arrium, says spatial data and GIS are seamlessly integrated into its operations, and primarily used for the regulatory and environmental management of the mines. Development of informative maps for tenement and regulatory applications, stakeholder consultation and communication are some of the key services.

Safe & sure

Geoinformation and technology comes handy in analysis and evaluation of the surface effects of mining activity, safety as well as in environmental impact assessment. Following the infamous incident in 2010 when 33 miners remained trapped for over two months in Chile’s San Jose mine, the governments of Chile and Argentina made the use of GPS equipment mandatory in all their mines. A number of other countries like India and Canada, and some US states are also in the process. While GPS doesn’t work underground, there are several benefits for above-ground or in opencast situations. Fleet management software is used by managers to monitor several aspects of vehicle and driver safety, improving compliance with safety standards.

“The need for geospatial technology is increasing as the value of mined material continues to increase and regulatory agencies continue to impose safety regulations,” says Bradley C. Burgess, Sales Manager-Laser Scanners, Topcon Positioning Systems.

Abandoned mines are a safety concern owing to roof cave-in threats or flooded boreholes. Other safety/security aspects include protecting personnel and facilities in unsecure environments and from natural disasters, which makes accurate maps of the mined areas an important aspect. Recognising the gravity, US Congress recently appropriated $10 million to Mine Safety and Health Administration for digitising mine maps and developing technologies to detect mine voids. Approximately $3.9 million was allocated as state grants for digitising underground maps for abandoned mines and making them digitally accessible to the public. Further, “mine operations in remote or dangerous locations are a growing issue for the staff and consequent costs for the company in terms of liability and health insurance, as well as logistical planning for protection, mitigation and possible evacuation of staff,” says Wade.

In India, CMPDI has initiated satellite-based thermal infrared mapping to monitor fires in mines and the status of remedial measures. Narendra Singh reveals satellite data is also being used to assess the siltation quantity in the reservoirs near coalfield area and the source of siltation.

With the proliferation of regulations governing the environmental and social impacts of mining activities, miners agree that corporate social responsibility is the way ahead. “We have to do it in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” says Narsing Rao. Accordingly, CMPDI is generating a pre-mining environmental database for land use based on high-resolution satellite data for 28 major coalfields and monitoring the impact on surrounding vegetation.

Geospatial technology is also making its presence felt in the administrative processes. In Brazil, the System Geographic Information of Mining of the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) is integrating information regarding registered mining processes that is associated with other geographic information. The system is georeferenced and displayed by digital maps in vector and raster formats.

Illegal mining is a bane for any country. While GPS-tracking is a sure shot way of dealing with it, some countries are trying out innovative technologies like UAVs. For instance, DNPM in Brazil partnered with Brasilia University to focus on development of UAVs to monitor illegal mining activities. UAVs have low-cost operation and maintenance, and offer the possibility of acquiring high temporal resolution data at very high spatial resolution even in difficult-to-access areas.

Digging for profits

Technology providers are bullish on mining and treading ambitiously. Trimble recently set up a complete business division around this industry. “Our organisational commitment at this level is the ultimate endorsement that the mining industry is very important to our business,” explains Pugh.

Similarly, Leica Geosystems has a ‘Life of Mine’ initiative offering a complete portfolio of class-leading measurement technologies capable of measuring and monitoring every phase of the mine cycle.

Gaisecker of Riegl says the company’s topographic and mining solutions have seen significant growth in sales over the years and work on future developments in the field of monitoring, geological virtual modelling and such is on.

A major variable in the profit equation controlled by mine managers is operating costs. Pugh says technology to improve efficiency, reduce rework and increase safety is justifiable when mineral prices are down, and is necessary to increase production to meet demand and profitability goals when the markets are up.

However, solution providers agree that despite the potential, the full benefits of geospatial technology in mining are far from being realised. As Wade says, many mining users see GIS applied principally to exploration and have not realised the cross-departmental benefits of geospatial technology. “They might have a GIS lead but they are embedded within an operational department, rather than being part of corporate IT,” he adds.

In fact, an Australian research project investigating practical methodology for assessing mining subsidence impacts found though a large number of mining companies are using spatial data and GIS, they could use it more effectively across a wider spectrum. Topcon’s Burgess thinks the challenge is effective communication of the business value of updating field data collection technology and frequency of as-built updates to mining executives. “It is also ultra-important to create an understanding of the RoI.”

The downsides also include availability of spare hardware, vendor response, network availability, and database space requirements, points out Musselman. Some like Cellura think the biggest challenge is the field-related equipment. “There does not seem to be a nice medium between the handheld units and full tablets. To enable on-field data collection and review, we would prefer a device which has the screen size, speed and memory of a tablet yet fits into a worker’s tool belt.”

Way forward

A whole range of emerging technologies have the potential to benefit the mining cycle significantly. For instance, Gaisecker says laser scanning is still an emerging technology and will find applications in unexplored segments like vehicle coordination and surveillance. Multiple long range laser systems enable near-real-time 3D monitoring. Combined with GIS, this is projected to become a global standard.

The incorporation of point cloud data by enterprise mining (operations) software applications can increase data and decrease the amount of time to gather it, says Burgess. Dr Keenan sees data collection and handling, data management and access, visualisation and business intelligence reporting, and safety of life as the future areas of application. Augmented reality and 3D could also become must-have features in the coming years.

Developments in IT area use of GIS in the Cloud makes the access to geospatial information more universal, easier and intuitive. Its application can bring quick tangible benefits, not only financial, but also improved decision making, information access and service quality, believes Prof Dubinski. Further, “developing the ability to store, edit, analyse and transfer data is useful in the context of the growing use of remote sensing data as an important source of data for GIS, panchromatic images, multispectral and hyperspectral image data as well as Synthetic Aperture Radar and other raster data.”

Since its inception, the World Mining Congress has strongly supported initiatives for development of mining science as a basis for economic growth of countries. “Modern and innovative technologies in the recognition, extraction of minerals as well as the utilisation and disposal of mining waste should contribute to the rational and efficient use of natural resources,” elaborates Prof Dubinski.

In the past two years, the world’s top 10 mining companies saw around 32% growth in revenue and 156% increase in net profit. Dr Keenan says this clearly shows a growth market in which effective use of geospatial technology is resulting in maximum RoI.

“Fortunately the mining industry has been willing to be early adopters,” says Pugh. Many companies now have technology advisory groups at the corporate level, streamlining introduction of new technology, but very few mandate adoption from top down. There is room to build a better connection between the mine and the corporate office with geospatial intelligence. As Pugh says, it would be beneficial to have a top-down and bottom-up approaches to educate on new technology. Also, first-hand demonstration of benefits is critical to gain further inroads.