Mine of the future will be digital

21st August 2015 By: Anine Kilian - Contributing Editor Online

JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Over the next five years, the mining industry needs to work towards an understanding of what the industry will be like 50 years from now, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Mining Professor of mine surveying Fred Cawood tells Mining Weekly.

He notes that, regardless of the mining methods applied in future, one thing is certain – the mine of the future will be digital.

“The Wits digital mine has four phases and focusses on building a mine mock-up for teaching, learning and research; developing a smart mine laboratory hosting digital technologies inside the mock mine; monitoring an underground environment for improved mine design and processes; and integrating a digital mine into a digital city and communities.”

Cawood points out that although projects covering all phases have been implemented, only the first phase has been completed, with the second phase at an advanced stage. 

“Phases three and four are mostly conceptual and depend on further funding.” 

He cites that the mining industry has adopted a zero-harm philosophy regarding worker safety and health, and a digital mine will accelerate the process of reaching this goal, adding that the completion of life-size mock facilities hosting technologies to allow for risk modelling is the major milestone to date.

Cawood illustrates that registered mining students will install current systems as part of their research.

He notes that, over time, these systems will further be integrated with smart surveying and mapping visualisation systems, smart climate control systems and energy savings, smart rock engineering systems, smart data processing and  smart mine design, mining planning and decision-making.

“The building of a digital mine laboratory allows for mine systems integration with land development, communities and surroundings – especially areas affected by past and current mining operations,” Cawood says, adding that a laboratory of this nature is, therefore, of long-term benefit to mine and urban planning as one integrated activity. 

Technologies under development that have the potential to be incorporated into the mine of the future include underground communication systems that allow for real-time intervention to manage all risks, lamp room camera systems – environmental, health and safety monitoring for security, preventing illegal access, monitoring worker health and face recognition and underground drone technology – a floating technology that sees, maps and collects data.

“The ultimate aim is to do the fundamental research required for manufacturing the smart underground monitoring station, such as complete stationary sidewall-mounted measurement stations that meet the accuracy requirements for mine surveying, mapping and environmental monitoring,” he explains.

Cawood cites that researchers from various backgrounds will be required and include all schools in the faculties of engineering and the built environment, geography, geology, computer science, mathematics, health and environmental sciences, as well as humanities. 

The benefits to the mining industry include access to a safe, smart mine laboratory reaching to the surrounding community on a multisensor platform; acquiring relevant knowledge to collect appropriate and accurate information to improve mine designs and processes and reduction and clarification  of multiple streams of data. 

“Clarity is required more than ever in a system capable of receiving continuous data from unlimited sources, which could result in information overload and significant noise. Misunderstanding of information is counterproductive and clarity brings information to a state of readiness for decision-making,” he concludes.