Which technologies will boost mining safety and productivity?

DianeJurgensProspects 2017
Diane Jurgens

Chief Technology Officer

New uses for technology in the resources industry are regularly being uncovered. While much has been made of automated equipment; artificial intelligence and advanced sensors will also make mining operations more reliable and efficient, as well as help people make better decisions and keep them out of harm’s way.   

We’re successfully using some these systems in our operations around the world and also have trials underway which illustrate their potential.

After years of development, we’re achieving strong results with autonomous equipment at our iron ore mines in Western Australia. The autonomous drills at Yandi and Mining Area C have increased productivity and reduced wear and tear maintenance costs. The fleet of self-driving trucks at Jimblebar has reduced potential safety incidents involving vehicles, increased truck utilisation and reduced haulage costs by about 20%.

Artificial intelligence is allowing us to improve decision-making in our supply chain. For example, we now use an expert system to schedule track movements and the dispatch of trains carrying iron ore between our mines and Port Hedland. This has dramatically reduced cancellations due to congestion and allowed us to run more trains.  Updated versions of this system will capture greater amounts of data, allowing it to consider more variables, so we can progressively improve the performance of the rail system.

Use of advanced sensors and real-time process control can also improve the quality and grade of ores delivered to our processing plants as well as reducing energy and water usage. Our Precision Mining project is exploring opportunities to maximise copper output and extend the life of our Escondida mine in Chile by using sensor technologies on our bulk mining equipment to quickly and accurately analyse copper grades. We also recently trialed smart caps at Escondida – sensor technology that measures driver fatigue by analysing brain waves. This system has now been integrated into more than 150 trucks.  

The benefits from these technologies will be fully realised when we integrate and manage our operations as a single system that runs from mine to market. When we are able to adopt systems engineering thinking we can analyse mine life cycles, identify constraints and prioritise investments. Our employees will have the information to make better decisions and safety will improve as we find more ways to remove people from potentially dangerous activities.  And with more predictable operations, we can we reduce spare capacity, get the most from our equipment, optimise production and reduce the need for stock piles.  This will cut the cost, waste and carbon emissions associated with every tonne we produce.

The productivity potential for the industry is huge. McKinsey estimate that data analytic and robotic technology improvements could produce US$290 billion to US$390 billion in annual productivity savings for oil, natural gas, thermal coal, iron ore and copper producers across the globe in 2035.1 

These benefits won’t be distributed evenly across the industry. Companies with long life assets and large fleets are more likely to be able to capture larger data sets, use machine learning more effectively and implement new generations of technology as they reach maturity.

BHP’s diversification and simplified organisational structure will help us identify best practices and increase the speed successful applications developed in one part of the business can be implemented elsewhere.

Over the last two decades, new technology helped the resources industry work with increasing scale.  When integrated within our operations, the new generation of equipment, sensors and software will help businesses work smarter to make their assets operate more like factories. Our recent improvements in this space are just the start of the future of mining.

1 p.10 Beyond the supercycle: How technology is reshaping resources - McKinsey Global Institute, February 2017