Artificial Intelligence – Changing The Way Mines, And Mining People, Operate

The Internet of Things with its myriad of connected devices produces a mammoth amount of data. Much of this data though never really does anything.Until now that is. Because this type of data is just what artificial intelligence (AI) cuts its milk teeth on. But first a brief explanation of AI. Artificial intelligence is what happens when data meets intelligent algorithms. What's an intelligent algorithm? An algorithm is a list of rules, or a step-by-step set of procedures, that must be followed in order to solve a particular problem. An intelligent algorithm is a (computer) algorithm that automatically improves by being exposed to 'experience', in this case data.

When an intelligent algorithm is applied to a set of data, it can analyse that data and 'learn' from any features or patterns contained in the data. This has huge implications for any industry where large volumes of data need to be processed in order to make constructive decisions. Industries like mining.It also has flow on implications for the people who work in those industries, and for the HR Departments in those industries.

Improving The Operations Of Mines With AI

The most obvious use currently of AI in mining operations is providing a 'better experience' for automated pit vehicles. Autonomous mining vehicles, from the haul trucks to the graders, loaders and excavators as well as drilling rigs, are hooked into the IoT. These machines produce copious amounts of data about their routines and routes.AI applied to this data allows operators based in operation centres hundreds of kilometres away to improve these routes and routines. They can do things like tweak the way the dump trucks take corners, or excavators load trucks, to make the entire process more efficient.This has potential cost and time saving implications. The vehicles can also safely work around the clock and don't need to stop for shift changes. Likewise, automated drilling rigs can be operated remotely; a single person can now co-ordinate up to 4 of these rigs simultaneously. One of the world's leading iron ore producers is also on target to automate their railway system by the end of this year (2018). AI has made all this, and more, possible.

From a people perspective, automating mining equipment like this has removed people from potentially hazardous working environments in mining pits.It's allowed them to be up-skilled and redeployed in other associated areas, and often created more career opportunities for them as well. A dump truck driver for example can now be employed in the operations centre monitoring that same equipment remotely. By making this transition they've learnt new technological skills that will allow them to progress further in the industry.

Monitoring Mining Equipment Via AI

Autonomous mining vehicles also produce important mechanical and operational data. AI can be applied to this information to spot potential mechanical and maintenance issues long before they become an expensive R and M issue.

Better And More Effective Targeting In Exploration Programs With AI

Before a mining operation gets to the point of starting to dig a hole in the ground, many hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in exploration to ensure there is something to actually dig out of the ground in that spot. And that it's economically viable to do so.Traditionally this exploration consisted of a team of geologists and geophysicists studying the topography and geography of the area before conducting exploratory surface sampling programs to establish indicators of potential riches underneath.If these indicators are found, further deeper drilling programs would commence to find those riches, work out their extent and assess their viability.

Once mining commences there is generally a requirement for ongoing drilling within the pit to establish where ore bodies are, and also their grades. This allows mine geologists and engineers to plan mining operations ahead of time so there is a continuous flow of work happening.All these processes, apart from costing a lot of money, also produce a lot of data. There is data about the geology of the area and data from the sampling and drilling programs.

Clever mining and exploration software has been developed over the past 30 odd years. These programs can analyse this data to generate 3D models of ore bodies, design pits, and work out the feasibility of digging it up.They are obviously a huge step up from paper plans, manually designed and drawn pits, and calculations made using calculators! AI though takes this process even further. Applying AI to this type of data allows for more accurate identification and pinpointing of target minerals. Whilst the use of AI for this purpose is still fairly recent, its potential for exploration programs of the future is enormous. 

Sorting The Dirt From The Gems With Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is also being trialled / used in sorting operations. One of the cold, hard, expensive realities of mining is that many tonnes of dirt need to be shifted to extract the targeted minerals. Therefore, anything that can efficiently reduce either this tonnage of dirt or improve recovery rates is going to be welcome. AI can be used to develop smart sorting equipment that can sort material coming through the equipment based on whatever parameters are required. This may allow for faster, more effective extraction of the required minerals a lot earlier in the process. Automated sorting machines are already being used very successfully in some diamond mines where this type of technology is ideal.

But what of the human side of artificial intelligence?

The big adopters of artificial intelligence within the mining industry maintain that it's provided workers, from the ground floor up right through to executive levels, with the chance to upskill and develop new skill sets. We've mentioned the dump truck drivers who now operate those machines remotely from the comfort of an air-conditioned office. They aren't the only ones. Former pit workers are now supervising the on site co-ordination of automated pit vehicles. Because, although these vehicles are programmed to go it alone, there always needs to be a human or two in attendance overseeing the process.

It's also feasible to assume that many of these upskilled employees, with the right training and development, could go on to become the senior management and mining executives of the future! Once again, AI can help you figure out which ones along with how best to help them develop and the type of training they require.

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020
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