As we move further into the 21st century, our sector is making great gains in automation and digitalisation. However, there are still critical challenges facing our industry that, for the most part, will be solved by innovative professionals and technology.
In many cases, solving the following challenges will significantly increase the safety and wellbeing of resources industry workers, communities and stakeholders, and will present new levels of productivity and efficiency for the sector.
1. The liquefaction of tailings
One of the most serious challenges of recent times has been tailings dam failures, particularly the recent disasters in Brazil. While there are many underlying causes, one of the most pertinent is the fact that the waste products from the mineral processing are (and remain) liquified. Addressing this challenge will involve an as-yet undiscovered technological solution, with a number of players already putting their hands up to assist. This includes the Global Mineral Professional Alliance (GMPA) – of which AusIMM is a founding partner – taking a leading role through its ‘Global Action on Tailings’ initiative.
2. Communicating to ever-deeper mines
Around the world, mines are getting deeper and there are ever-present challenges of ongoing communications to assess stress damage, squeezing ground and rock bursts. Mining methods and support systems have evolved slowly to improve the management of excavation damage and safety of personnel, but damage still occurs, and personnel still get injured.
Two-way communication, particularly with personnel (as opposed to vehicles), remains a challenge for the thousands of workers who travel several kilometres into the earth in such deep mines.
3. Extracting minerals from lower grades
One hundred years ago, it was commonly accepted that unless you were mining ten grams per tonne of contained gold, you were not making any money. Times have changed! Gold grades, for example, have decreased, as has the cut-off grades for all minerals.
Technology will drive such cut-off grades even lower, by lowering exploration and exploitation costs. Increased plant automation and data analytics are already being applied to mineral processing and starting to achieve positive results.
4. Small footprint mining
Technology will continue to automate machinery, which will drive down onsite operational personnel required. The reduction in onsite operational personnel requirement will then reduce the environmental footprint that the mining (not necessarily exploration) industry currently has. The extractive operations of the future will be operated from head office, whereby the machinery is driven by 3D CAD files that guide the drilling, blasting, loading and hauling unit activities. Mines will continue to require people, but their roles will change from operators to maintainers (still with managerial staff onsite), with an increased focus on data and IT skills needed.
5. The ‘home-away-from-home’ challenge
The promotion and protection of good mental health for fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers is beginning to be addressed. For example, the Western Australia government has recently released its code of practice for FIFO workers in the resources and construction sectors. Although many mining companies now provide free telephony and WiFi onsite, it can remain an issue to communicate with loved ones during the time away. One possible future could involve holographic imagery and virtual or augmented reality – imagine being able to sit down to dinner with your loved one to eat the same meal, even though you are thousands of kilometres away!
6. Discovering orebodies undercover
It is well-known that the Western Mining Corporation took around six years to discover the massive Olympic Dam orebody, which was covered under some 300 metres of barren material. The orebodies that we have historically mined were literally walked over by rock kickers, but today the finds are much more difficult. Technology is already allowing us to analyse rock structures in more detail than ever before, thereby increasing confidence prior to drilling a discovery hole. The tools available to geologists will only get better as computers become more powerful and more data is harnessed in exploration.
‘The tools available to geologists will only get better as computers become more powerful.’
7. Underground coal mining and coal workers pneumoconiosis
Coal dust and methane explosions still provide real and dangerous risks to underground coal mine workers, especially following the resurfacing of coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP) in Queensland. While the issue is complex and requires input from many professions and experts, the technology that solves these insidious issues will save lives.
8. Water management
Water – both supply and usage – is a big societal issue and it’s one that presents an incredible opportunity for savvy mine operators and innovators. Most mining operations utilise a significant amount of water from local suppliers in their extractive treatment plants. Reducing a site’s overall water usage through various technologies, including recycling and reuse following sequestration, could be one of the major ways a company could gain a significant competitive advantage moving forward.
9. Finding good people
The search for the best professionals remains an ongoing challenge for the mining industry, especially during boom times when skills are in demand. We all know someone who has been approached by a company as a result of their online presence, such as through LinkedIn. Technology tools and sophisticated social networking and recruitment tools are likely to assist our industry finding the best people – even if their current role is outside the sector.
10. Social licence to operate
As resources professionals, we all understand the need for social license to operate. Technology can assist us in achieving this, especially in a world where public opposition to mining can delay and even deter new projects. Online platforms provide some two-way communication and, when used smartly, can be used to build reputation. In the future, we are likely to be able to use virtual reality to visually inspect reclaimed lands, or roving autonomous drone technology with onboard cameras to do that same activity – thereby making rehabilitation easier and demonstrating to communities our industry’s commitment to successful rehabilitation.