Computing and digitalisation are terms that are often confused, and not just in the mining sector. So, let’s start by clearing up this common area of misunderstanding.
“Digitalisation is completely different to computing. It’s about making former non-digital material accessible in computer systems, so that they can be monitored and controlled with the purpose to improve productivity” clarifies Christian Funk, Director for Product Marketing and Business Development at JLT Mobile Computers.
“Computing, on the other hand, is about using computers and computing processes to handle the increasing amount of available data to create a better view of tasks, and to be able to make faster, optimal decisions based on all that data.”
But, why do we need specialised computers for mining applications? Why not use a regular tablet or laptop?
“When it comes to computing hardware, the requirements of industrial applications such as mining are quite different to those of other sectors,” says Funk.
“It’s highly dependent on what task you’re doing. For example, for a human-machine interface (HMI) for a driver that’s actually in a vehicle, in the mine, the most important thing is a good display that can be adjusted for varying light conditions.
“In an underground mine, you need to be able to adjust the brightness for low light levels. While at an open pit mine, you need a high brightness option to counteract the direct sunlight.
“Then there is coverage for a Wi-Fi or WLAN network, and the electronics need to be more resistant to vibration and shock. They need to be able to handle what we call ‘rugged power’, which is power of very poor quality.
“It’s the actual environment that puts strain on computers in mining applications, regardless of whether it’s underground or open pit.”
Funk’s point about HMIs is an interesting one; as the uptake of automated vehicles increases in the mining sector – applications where safety tolerances are incredibly low – some vendors are turning to other, more experienced industries in a bid to make their HMIs more intuitive and user friendly.
For example, at the APCOM 2019 conference held in Poland last June, Finn Hovgaard, a senior airline pilot from Scandinavian Airlines spoke of the work he was doing with MineTronics to refine their HMIs; with automated technologies, it is crucial that operators can re-take control at the drop of a hat in the event of a critical safety situation.
Cloud Vs Edge
The demand for automation has also changed the way that companies in the mining space store and transfer data. This is where cloud and edge computing come into play…
“Although we have faster data transfer speeds through 5G and also high-speed Wi-Fi networks, with automated technologies we also have more advanced ‘bandwidth craving devices’ at the point of action,” Funk explains.
“For instance, a remote-controlled vehicle in a mine requires high-resolution cameras and radar sensors to operate. If we transferred all that data to the cloud, made calculations and then transferred it back to the machine, that would require an enormous amount of bandwidth and it would create a lot of latency in the system.
“It would slow down the system considerably, even with a really fast network.
“If you need a camera to see what you’re doing in an underground mine, you can’t have high latency or long wait times. So, edge computing where we decentralise the computing and allow it to happen closer to the source of the data is growing.”
In practice, this means that part of the data is analysed and calculations are made at the point of action, or very close to it, to free up network access for devices that need real-time data transfer to the central cloud.
For example, in a semi-autonomous vehicle, that could mean that an onboard computer takes care of sensor data analysis to free up the network for the high-resolution camera data, making the camera feed as fast as possible.
This approach is already widely used in other industries such as the automotive sector. In passenger cars, for instance, onboard computers take care of auto-lane correction capabilities, rather than transferring that data to the cloud and waiting for a response.
“If there isn’t a person involved, why send all that data to the surface to compute it and send it back for controlling the vehicle?” Funk asks. “It would be better to have computing power in the vehicle or very close by, so you can have that direct link and make the machines more autonomous.
“We have a good example from the agricultural industry where a customer is using our fastest iCore 7 processor on a device that oversees clearance of weeds from crops. It uses a small device with eight cameras that look down onto the soil to identify weeds.
“The machine drives over the crop at high speed and removes the weeds, and the computing, or image analysis is done at the edge. That wouldn’t be possible with cloud computing.”
Again, this example reinforces the importance of looking outside of the mining industry when it comes to finding computing technologies and techniques to solve our challenges. An open mind is often the most valuable tool of all.
“Actually, the mining industry is often at the forefront of applying the latest innovations when it comes to IT technology,” Funk says. “If you look at mines like Boliden’s Aitik and Kristineberg operations, they are working fully autonomously with 5G.
“There’s a lot of really cutting-edge technology being used in underground mining right now.”
Bringing mines up to speed
While some mines may be making use of cutting-edge computing technologies, Funk is quick to remind me that there is a fair amount of disparity in the standard of digital technologies used at mines across the globe.
It is a select few that have the very latest devices and software; the vast majority still use technologies that are 20 years old or more.
“There is a lack of technological development for the ‘not so advanced’ mining operations,” he emphasises. “Cobalt for electric cars is often dug out of the ground by hand by miners in the DRC. That’s a big difference compared to what the hottest mines in the Nordics are doing. It wouldn’t be viable to put an autonomous drill rig into those operations.
“There is a lot of work that could be done to level the playing field and bring those mines up to date with computing technology.”
Of course, part of the problem is price point and, as cutting-edge computing technologies become more widely used, this will reduce somewhat. However, the speed of technological development is such that, by the time these technologies become affordable, they will likely no longer be the most advanced.
Also, if the correct level of technical support and training are not available in these regions, then how can mines implement new technologies and get the most from them?
Without significant investment from mining companies and a leap of faith from many smaller technology and service providers who may need to follow their clients into new markets to make this shift happen, we are stuck in a chicken and egg situation.
Attracting diverse talent
The power of new computing technologies is that they make more traditional mining roles much more attractive to new recruits, especially those from diverse backgrounds and those with different skill sets; something this industry desperately needs.
If used correctly, techniques such as gamification can also increase retention.
“It is much easier to attract people to work at a remote controlling station than actually sitting in a vehicle in the mine,” Funk says. “Gamification is already being used to aid recruitment, especially in areas where you have a more educated workforce. Look at the simulators and remote-control cabins at some trade shows for instance, they always attract people.
“Young people don’t really want to get their hands dirty in the same way as older generations and, with better computing technologies, they don’t have to anymore.”