While advances in mining technology and processes have driven massive improvements in occupational health and safety over the past fifty years , mining remains a hazardous profession, with Safe Work Australia reporting that mining has Australia’s third highest fatality rate, with an average of nine workers killed in the workplace each year.
But as new mines open – often to extract the resources essential for our global transition to renewables – many have the potential to become a ‘zero entry,’ all-digital mine.
Human workers only rarely (if ever) need to go beneath the surface in these fully-automated mines, with the hazardous work on the rockface to drill, blast, haul, and process minerals done using sensors, automation and remote-controlled vehicles and equipment.
Australia’s mining sector contributes around 14.6 per cent of GDP , and employs two per cent of the workforce – and as mining is increasingly automated, the roles and the composition of the mining workforce is likely to change in quite significant ways.
Automation for a digital mine
Dr Ewan Sellers is CSIRO’s Digital Mining Lead – a sector that is growing fast as worldwide demand for metals skyrockets during our global transition to renewable energy.
He says that rapid automation of the sector is already changing the high-demand skills in this industry.
“The miners of the future are increasingly going to be mechatronic engineers, electrical technicians, and software engineers who design, program and maintain the machines,” he says.
The ‘zero-entry mine’ is no longer just a concept; Australia’s CMOC-Northparkes copper and gold mine in the central west of NSW implemented the world’s first fully-automated block cave mine in 2015; and Syama goldmine in Mali, West Africa, has all of its underground mining operations run by Malian operators in a surface-level control room.
Sellers – whose background includes management of high-risk mine-sites – believes the industry will benefit greatly from reducing human presence in these hazardous situations.
“I have spent time in a one-metre high mining excavation, situated four kilometres below the surface, where my role was to understand how to prevent rock bursts in deep-level goldmine sites,” says Sellers.
“After experiencing the tension and the danger of some mining environments where some people work every day, I welcome automation that takes people out of those areas.”
However, moving to full-automation is difficult to do in an existing site, he says; it’s likely that future zero-entry mines will have been designed that way from the ground up.
"Minerals in high demand in coming years will include copper, nickel, and zinc – typically the kinds of minerals most likely to be found in deeper ores," Sellers says.
“There is some urgency in mining these critical minerals as fast as possible, and extracting them in the most efficient way.”
However, he says, efficient mine automation goes beyond just extraction; there are moves to handle minerals right where they're mined, doing some automated basic processing underground so that most of the dug-up, unusable material remains in-situ.
Tailings dams filled with polluted water pose a significant challenge for the mining industry – and zero-entry mines that produce much-reduced waste could offer a promising solution.
“This could reduce volumes in processing plants and tailings dams up on the surface where they pose a bigger risk to the environment,” he adds.
"Full automation of mining operations relies on vast amounts of highly diverse data – and this can present a unique problem for miners."
"Machines and computers must make assumptions and generalise, which carries some risk, so mining cannot ever be fully automated, and must rely on human supervision to apply decision support and confirmation," Sellers says.
"As remote supervision becomes more common, instead of having one operator per machine, a supervisor might monitor multiple machines, providing a safety net to prevent any dangerous errors."
Another key role for digital tools in mining involves following minerals through the entire value chain, so that companies and governments can track the provenance of materials, from their discovery in the ground, through sensing and sorting, processing, manufacture, and recycling.
Dr Mark Lindsay is CSIRO’s Science Lead for the ‘Minerals 4D’ project which explores ways to digitalise the mining value chain – while also addressing critical issues in sustainable extraction of minerals.
While AI and machine learning are widely used across mining (from identifying minerals, to characterising geophysics, and optimising operations), he says managing this data is a significant challenge.
“We have a big data problem - but it's not about big volumes, it’s about big amounts of diversity."
Quantum computing and sensing could potentially play an important role in this area in future, he adds, and could help integrate new data into models dynamically.
His team of researchers, including two postdocs and four PhD students, uses ‘mineral potential modelling’ to codify expert knowledge into digital representations that can be tested.
"What we're trying to do, is make it repeatable," he says.
The team aims to develop technologies to improve various aspects of the mineral value chain – such as bulk ore sorting, which can help optimise mining processes while also reducing energy and water consumption.
"Digital tools such as blockchain also have the potential to better track the carbon footprint of mining operations," Lindsay says.
“Processes to attach data to distributed ledgers like blockchains, could allow us to monitor and track environmental impacts throughout the mining value chain,” he explains.
These digital tools can enable better-informed decision-making, potentially tracking the provenance of not only the materials - but also the data used to predict their locations.
“Globally, we are seeing an increasing push to reduce carbon emissions and ensure responsible mining practices – so these technologies can open up opportunities for businesses that prioritise sustainability,” he says.
Tracking the provenance of minerals will be essential for the green transition, he adds, as many critical metals needed for renewable energy technologies are challenging to process and extract.
As digital tools continue to advance, and track and optimise the environmental and social aspects of mining operations more effectively, this increased transparency and accountability could be a game-changer for the industry as it works to balance economic growth with environmental sustainability.