Buying Innovation Off The Shelf

Remote ULP Drill Rig - Bathopele Mine Panel 1 East - Bathopele Central Shaft - Operated by Leonard Motakane being assisted with spotting by Tshepo Molefe

“Nobody is breaking down our doors to give us a system to sense properties of hard rock,” explained Donovan Waller, Group Head of Technology Development at Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies.

“So we have to either invest and develop it ourselves, or tailor what’s available from consumer and industrial markets.”

Waller’s team has focused on innovating ways to reduce variability in mining operations.

It has challenged itself to work within constraints not only of available technology, but the requirement that those improvements come with minimal additional capital expenditures. The development work includes such areas as:

Blast holes, positioning and spacing based on insights from past data yield the best possible blast outcomes. Adding variables to these models, like rock hardness, will make them more reliable, especially considering downstream process optimization.

Drills, by using proxies for those rock-cutting sensors that don’t yet exist, such as measuring torque and penetration rate, and thereby assessing performance.

Operational design, using seismic and other geophysical characteristics to determine things like “slip planes,” it can safely adjust pit angles, and carry more ore out of a mine.

Wearables, as internal vitals and external temp and sounds can evidence if a work task is not performing as planned or, more importantly, anticipate an individual’s need for help, which is critical as the company is always striving for safer working conditions.

That last point is particularly intriguing to Waller, who explained that his industry tends to focus on process, whereas looking at it from the individual’s perspective — health status, environmental awareness, and needs for real-time data — could yield intriguing new opportunities. For instance, his team is working on ways to combine data from drills and the surrounding environment with physical location to produce “active risk maps.”

“All of these data points exist today.”

“We simply need to improve the sensor arrays and models,” Waller added, noting that they were inspired by the use of “mission control” setups in Formula One Racing that look at hundreds of sensors and thousands of data points, with better accuracy, to make predictive insights about performance.

Condition monitoring is another opportunity for immediate benefit at Anglo American, as sensors available in the market today enable better maintenance planning, and thereby reduce unplanned downtime, allowing for better swapping of capacity among devices in the overall system, and help preclude dangerous surprises.

“If we can drill and blast continuously, we can completely change the way we do things, bringing major cost benefits,” Waller said.

Interestingly, the off the shelf approach suggests even more game-changing innovations, which aren’t limited to the uses of big data or digital tools.

For instance, drones could be used to remotely monitor sites. Fiber optic cables could be glued to mine walls or put in closely arrayed holes to measure stress and gases. Certain molecules react to physical conditions by, literally, lighting up (it’s called bioluminescence), and could be used to communicate mine conditions without the need of a digital device altogether.

“The mining industry has lagged behind oil & gas, and agriculture,” Waller added. “Now, we have the benefit of the technologies they’ve pioneered, and the tools available to us, and available more cheaply, as consumers in the open market.”

“We may be able to leapfrog past the Status Quo, and benefit from larger, more nuanced innovations.”