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How Harnessing Computer Vision and Machine Learning Will Revolutionize the Mining Industry

This article was originally published in Mining Engineering publication-Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.

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At the most recent MINExpo in Las Vegas, companies came together to showcase how technology can be used to make their operations safer and more efficient. When I spoke with them, some attendees seemed relegated to the fact that the mining industry has always operated according to certain time-tested principles that don't involve jumping on every new technological trend. Others expect that mines will soon have autonomous electric vehicles running around the clock.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. In business, as in life, that is usually the best path to follow.

The instant access to people and information provided by 21st-century technology continues to push businesses in all industries toward greater efficiency and unheard-of levels of modernization. And in the world of mining, the embrace of advanced technology is all about managing risk.

However, even in this age of digital information overload, some mine sites still require employees to physically download data from individual trucks to monitor payload data and inspect road conditions using a clipboard. What's more baffling is that other mine sites still have no way of tracking tons moved at all.

This isn't due to a lack of innovation in the industry. Quite to the contrary, there is an abundance of new technology available that provides real-time monitoring of vehicle movements and tracks road conditions without the intervention of people. So why are owners reluctant to embrace advances in mining tech?

Gauging the Value of Change

Survey data has traditionally been captured by ground laser scans and LIDAR systems. A mine site surveyor would drive around the pit with a truck-mounted scanner to generate a point cloud. This process would be completed every few days and would take an entire day.

The many cons of this method far outweigh the pros. First, it provides no visual data. If an operation has moved beyond the roller wheel and tape measure, visual pit models and LIDAR scans are typically completed once every six to 12 months by an aerial flyover, but such sporadic information gathering isn't likely to result in the most actionable data. Moreover, given the high cost (in terms of both money and time), the numerous safety and liability issues, and the lack of flexibility in scheduling, manual processes are more trouble than they are worth.

Overall, while miners are excellent operators who value innovation, their employers often try to outsource it or acquire innovators instead of investing in existing technology that can improve current operations. It is a never-ending dilemma: managing the huge operating expenses of moving vast amounts of resources while simultaneously trying to reduce costs.

Embracing Real Innovation in Mining

A wide array of innovative tools can help balance both sides of the ledger, but only if industry leaders embrace them. Much of the confusion and frustration that surrounds innovation in mining and blasting, or the lack of thereof, can be attributed to inherent dynamics within the industry.

In general, mining stakeholders can be broken down into two groups: the mine owners and the companies that sell to them. Both parties need to be on the same page and as transparent as possible with each other to ensure mutual benefits.

One of the biggest obstacles mine owners face when trying to find solutions for their business is that many providers either will not or cannot share protocol information with equipment managers. To illustrate: Imagine that you bought a smartphone, but couldn't download any additional apps because it supposedly came with everything you need.

No one ever wants to be stuck in that kind of situation, but mine owners' bottom lines can be severely and negatively affected by such a bad decision. Signing up for an alleged all-in-one, one-size-fits-all solution without a guaranteed return on that investment is simply a non-starter for mining professionals.

When outside providers can't devise a complete solution for owners and their engineers and operators, the extra expense of bringing innovators in-house to ensure that their miners have a complete and integrated solution seems to make logical sense. Mine owners know they need to leverage new technologies, but their concerns about cost and implementation are very often more than enough to outweigh their immediate need.

Overcoming Obstacles and Misconceptions

The future of mining is intrinsically tied to the future of technology. For the industry to stay relevant and competitive, mines must rely on innovative tools to help overcome the costs of manual labor. Although concerns about ROI and managing the change for operators are real, there are ways to minimize the risks.

If you are hesitant to incorporate emerging technologies into your operation, some insights into how they actually work should help assuage your fear.

1. Integration Into Existing Systems

Technologies like drones and software applications can be easily integrated with your existing data management processes so that your miners can make the most of the technology you already have in place. However, these tools alone shouldn't serve as the only integration points in your mine.

Throughout your day, you have many different forms of data coming in from several departments. It is imperative that any data gathered is not only accurate, but can also be organized and easily analyzed to provide the needed context and bring the big picture of what is going on in your mine into stark relief. Then, you will be able to clearly see the areas where you can make improvements.

Let's say you already have a solution in place to track vehicle data in real time. You could pair that data with aerial drone data to see how the mine site is developing in order to optimize production while reducing operating costs.

Software that works with any image-capturing hardware won't restrict miners from using whichever device they prefer, allowing for integration with other technologies across different stages of the mining cycle. With software applications for drill and blast as well as load and haul, the effectiveness of blasting can be related to haul efficiencies, as they affect each other.

Your mine is an entanglement of cause-and-effect scenarios just waiting to happen. If you don't properly manage your haul routes because inspections weren't completed correctly, you might be replacing your tires too often. Frequent premature tire bursts ramp up costs. According to our estimates, unplanned downtime can cost $4,000 per hour for trucks and $8,000 per hour for excavators. Without bringing together data about road conditions and tire purchasing, though, you may never even realize you have a problem.

Each company and each mine site uses technology differently depending on their resources and environment. Whereas one might focus on automation or driver safety, another may use technology for geological modeling. Ultimately, mining technology can be molded and shaped to meet the needs of your business and your miners.

2. The Bird's-Eye View of a UAV

Haul road and pit conditions are essential to minimizing tire and maintenance costs as well as to promoting safety in mine sites. Support equipment, like graders and dozers, which clean and maintain haul roads and pit conditions, relies on human reporting to know the location of potholes or rock spills. That's why live data from a camera mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is so valuable. The human eye simply cannot match the level of accuracy of a UAV.

The primary issue with manual reporting lies in the subjectivity of the final reports. Miners who scout the haul roads use basic subjective methods of inspection that can't be accurately replicated as a regular task. Drones do away with the subjectivity by digitizing the physical world, thereby bringing real data to light and illuminating real, fixable problems.

The type of data that can be gathered with drone technology improves the bottom line by allowing you to make decisions based on concrete information rather than estimations or human reporting. Nonetheless, even companies that already use drone technology don't always utilize it to its fullest potential.

Drone technology can be maximized to glean accurate data for haul route surface optimizations; haul road, pit, and dump design; updated surfaces for optimized blast designs; before and after blast data; stockpile management; and grade control and exploration planning. While drone technology's true potential is still being explored, the overall benefits certainly outweigh the upfront costs.

3. Machine-Learned Pattern Recognition

The mining industry has traditionally found it challenging to create value from optimization and modeling software because of the ever-changing nature of the industry. Machine learning offers a good way to better anticipate those changes.

Machine learning is a process by which computers recognize patterns, identify objects, and learn about the world around them without having to be programmed. Because it is designed to see patterns in ways that humans can't, machine learning is better able to predict day-to-day operational shifts and discover how to keep them from happening again.

In the blasting arena, machine learning has been used to reduce flyrock incidents, optimize fragmentation, reduce the environmental effects of blasting, and improve the traceability of misfired explosives. Being able to change haul truck routes to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, dynamically optimize crushing and milking circuits based on feed material, and predict geotechnical stability issues in advance makes miners' work more efficient and safer.

Patterns identified via machine learning make it easier for you to predict incidents that will slow down your productivity, and they also dramatically improve the safety of your miners. As the number of incidents fall (and remain low), you can expect to see your insurance and liability costs fall with them. Machine learning can very easily start chain reactions that lead to safer mines and lower operational costs using data you didn't even think was relevant.

Technology and Your Bottom Line

Of course, all technology comes with risk. But attempting to mitigate those risks by avoiding innovative techniques and tools altogether won't make your business any safer or more profitable. The only thing burying your head in the sand will accomplish is opening your business up to a whole new set of risks: losing competitive advantage, making it harder for employees to get work done, and putting undue stress on yourself and your business.

Why purchase a technological solution that won't work with your current systems or improve your business? Novel solutions have been designed to bring all of your critical data together from across different platforms. Why spend entire days inspecting sites? Drone technology could get you better data in half the time.

The risk of ultimate failure isn't worth the added stress and cost that you sign up for every time you pass on an opportunity to innovate. Technology is built to help you work smarter, not harder, but only if you trust in its promise instead of running away from it.