Mining for New Technology
AI, drones, and machine learning are changing the resource development landscape
Alex Legrismith, mining engineer, flies one of Usibelli Coal Mine’s new drones.
Usibelli Coal Mine (UCM) became a frontrunner in the mining industry in terms of environmental restoration when it pioneered a program to re-establish the natural landscape on previously mined land years before it was a federal requirement.
The company actually begins working on a reclamation plan before mining activity starts: an inventory is taken of the variety and abundance of natural vegetation found on the site, as well as information on conditions required for the vegetation to grow.
According to UCM, since 1970 it has reclaimed more than 5,500 acres and planted more than 500,000 seedlings.
And throughout UCM’s seventy-six years of operations, the company has kept an eye on emerging technology and best practices. “[New technology] has certainly changed the way we work, has helped us reduce costs, and has made us more efficient and safer,” says Lisa Herbert, vice president of public relations at UCM.
Recently UCM acquired a new CAT 994K loader with a 35-cubic-yard bucket, which has more capacity than its 994D loader with a 23-cubic-yard bucket and is more fuel efficient than the company’s O&K hydraulic shovel with 27 cubic yards of capacity. In the last few years, the company has also added several 150-ton haul trucks with custom beds. “Even though the capacity of the haul trucks as purchased from CAT is 150 tons, the density of our coal prevented us from actually hauling that much coal. The modifications that have been made to the new truck beds now allow us to carry 150 tons of coal, which increases our productivity,” according to Herbert. This increase in productivity also has the result that the trucks are burning less diesel overall.
As UCM brings on new equipment and technology, it does so deliberately and over a period of time. “Whether or not the new equipment is intended to replace an older piece of equipment or if it is purchased to supplement our current fleet, we always overlap a few years when possible so that we can work out any kinks,” Herbert says. “When we replace equipment, our goal has always been to replace it with something that will be cost effective, boost production, and increase fuel efficiencies.”
In addition to newer and higher capacity vehicles, UCM has been implementing tech in other ways in its fleet. To aid in maintaining the fleet, several of the mine’s trucks now carry onboard tech to provide UCM with real-time data on oil levels, engine issues, and other diagnostics, allowing the maintenance department to schedule service in a way that will have the least impact on operations.
“[New technology] has certainly changed the way we work, has helped us reduce costs, and has made us more efficient and safer.”
In the near future, UCM plans to outfit its haul trucks with GPS that will record haulage cycles and truck drive times. “This will allow management to schedule shifts accordingly or identify opportunities to improve efficiency,” says Herbert.
UCM has also been moving into having a new kind of fleet operating at the mine: a flying one. The company has introduced drones as part of itsoperations. “It has been a real game changer for our engineering and reclamation departments and has helped us improve efficiencies across all mining activities.”
Drones have replaced much of UCM’s surveying equipment, as thousands of data points can be recorded within the thirty minute flight. Drones also improve safety, as they can be used in areas that could be hazardous to UCM personnel.
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“When we replace equipment, our goal has always been to replace it with something that will be cost effective, boost production, and increase fuel efficiencies.”
Drones are also contributing to UCM’s reclamation legacy: “Large aerial photos combined with detailed topography from the drone provides our reclamation department with data to monitor regrade efforts in the pits as well as monitoring growth of vegetation in reclaimed areas,” Herbert explains.
Its laboratory department acquired a portable analyzer to read the chemical compositions of the coal recently. Use of the portable analyzer replaces the mine’s current process, in which an employee goes to the mining area, collects samples, brings them back to the lab, crushes them, and then tests their composition. Testing samples onsite saves time and helps UCM manage quality control for its customers.
Also in the lab, UCM purchased a water analysis machine that allows it to test settling pond water samples in-house; water from the pond is discharged in the summer and must meet standards set by the mine’s Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. “This technology reduces our costs in external lab fees—but more importantly provides us with same-day water results as opposed to waiting several weeks,” says Herbert.
It’s an ongoing concern in many industries that increased automation and advancing technology will reduce the number of positions available for human workers, but UCM has been and continues to be conscientious that adopting technology works for the mine and its employees: “The new technology that has been implemented at UCM has not displaced jobs, but it has allowed us to keep up with increased sales without adding additional workers.” UCM has maintained a workforce of approximately 100 employees for several years.
Mining is an industry of commodities, which are given to significant price and production fluctuations that require companies in the industry to remain vigilant about maintaining efficiencies. That said, production at any given mine isn’t generally tied to the current value of the commodity it is mining. According to Sara Teel in the May 2019 edition of Alaska Economic Trends published by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the relationship between production and price is complex. “Price and production don’t always track together, as the relationship is complicated. High startup and operational costs, the time it takes from discovery to start of production, and regulatory obligations mean short-term price volatility doesn’t usually affect short-term productions. Mines can’t promptly shut down when prices fall, nor can they quickly expand when prices jump,” she writes.
Current or projected commodity prices can be an obstacle when mining companies are considering expansions or trying to get a mining project off the ground, though that has not been the most significant obstacle historically in Alaska, which is known for its world-class project potential. Teel reports, “According to the Fraser Institute’s Annual Survey of Mining Companies, Alaska ranked fifth out of ninety-one global regions for mineral potential in 2017 and tenth for overall investment attractiveness.” Kensington Mine, Fort Knox, and Red Dog are all looking at expansion projects, and Pebble Mine, Donlin Gold Mine, and the Bokan-Dotson Ridge project are all at various stages of project development, among many others.
But from a global view, the exploration picture isn’t as optimistic. According to GoldSpot Discoveries, a company that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) in mining exploration activities, “Spending on exploration remains at historically high levels. Around $54.3 billion has been spent on gold exploration over the past decade, yet the rate of discovery has declined.”
The company explains that the modern era of mineral exploration was launched after WWII, and in the last seven decades nearly all of the “easy” deposits at or close to the surface have been identified and mined, which means further exploration has become “reliant on expensive deep-drilling and data-heavy surveying.”
Data-heavy surveying does provide mineral explorers with lots of information, but that is part of the problem: it’s a ton of information. According to GoldSpot Discoveries, a single drill hole can provide 200 megabytes of data and for large projects hundreds of holes may be drilled—and that data might be then combined with historic, seismic, and other types of data. It takes a lot of work to turn piles of data into a plan for exploration or development.
Hence the company’s specialty: using AI and machine learning to handle the significant amounts of data collected to better direct companies to potential targets, in the process hopefully reducing risk and cost.
From more efficient trucks to AI managing massive data, all levels of new tech in mining allow the industry to produce the raw materials necessary for society to pursue everything from reliable, affordable energy to advancing smart technology.
“According to the Fraser Institute’s Annual Survey of Mining Companies, Alaska ranked fifth out of ninety-one global regions for mineral potential in 2017 and tenth for overall investment attractiveness.”
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Spreading the Word
When Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) first aired TV commercials featuring the tagline, “A Place That’s Always Been,” the reaction was surprising. Not only because they received numerous accolades and marketing awards for the campaign but because, at the time, it was rare for Alaska Native corporations to market themselves through the media.