The Applicability of Mobile Technology in the Mining Industry
Challenges in a complex industry explain why more mining companies are looking for ways to leverage modern tools and platforms to make their work easier.
By Bryan Christiansen
Historically, mines contribute major economic benefits for their host communities. For instance, the mining industry in Alaska provides thousands of jobs and adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state’s revenue. However, a downside to mining operations has always been its inherent dangers. Added to that, the modern realities of mining—especially the issue of declining reserves—mean that operators have to dig to greater depths, thus increasing the safety risks. But safety is just one of several concerns for miners. Other considerations include better ore recovery and strategies for increasing productivity while lowering operational costs. All these challenges in a complex industry explain why more mining companies are looking for ways to leverage modern tools and platforms to make their work easier.
One of these platforms is mobile technologies.
Although many people immediately associate “mobile technology” with smartphones, mobile technology actually encompasses any technology that is portable and allows its users the convenience of free movement. This ease of use, and other benefits, makes it increasingly valuable for application in several industries including the mining industry. Below we look at some areas where mobile technological advancements are having a major impact on mining activities.
Applications of Mobile Technology
Mobile technology is applicable to several areas of mine operations, and it is already transforming activities from daily operations to the prevention of fatalities and injuries.Its main advantage is mobility and the ability to maintain connectivity even in remote areas. In addition, many mobile devices and tools can function offline, so operations are not impacted in areas with poor internet coverage. Here are some instances where the mining industry is using mobile technology:
Mines are exploring the benefits of using specially modified drones rather than conventional terrestrial methods for surveying their quarries. These drones can accomplish full aerial survey of sites ranging in size from a few acres to hundreds of hectares and more in a matter of hours. There are several reasons why mine operators would consider drones for gathering geospatial data: Improved visualization: The data retrieved from the drone is displayed virtually, usually in 3D format. This allows users to get a full display of what’s going on at their locations and also crosscheck issues such as line-of-sight, excavation volumes, interruptions to existing workflows, and so on to plan more effectively. Improved efficiency: The level of detail obtainable from a drone would likely take weeks to accomplish using traditional surveying methods. Better safety: These drones are collision-tolerant and are modified to be rugged enough to withstand the harsh environments in most mines. Therefore, it’s more ideal to send drones rather than employees down into some of the more hazardous locations. Some examples include this one from Flyability and this from Sensefly.
Communication and Information
Although communication is one of the most important requirements for safe and productive mining, it can be difficult to achieve. Without the right infrastructure, workers cannot quickly relay information to their supervisors/managers. Thus, if they encounter major problems at remote locations on-site, it becomes difficult to get assistance. Fortunately, mobile technology is helping to avoid these kinds of situations.
Let’s take the example of the ubiquitous smartphone and see what it can be used for when working in a mine:
Faster communication: Almost everyone uses a mobile phone these days and mining companies are now able to relay information to workers faster and more effectively through these devices. Also, this can help to increase workers’ productivity since the ease of communication makes daily workflow smoother.
Geofencing: Apart from contacting each other, mobile phones can be set up to give off alerts when people or assets cross a virtual boundary. These alerts are triggered based on a phone’s proximity to installed beacons. They warn or notify users and other decision-makers about situations that need their intervention. When used this way, geofencing helps to prevent theft and unauthorized movement of vehicles and other moveable heavy equipment. But most importantly, this technology helps to alert workers about dangerous conditions around them when they operate too close to the edge of the boundary.
Mining Mobile Apps: There are now several apps designed specifically for the unique needs of the mining industry. These apps digitize numerous mining processes, and they are commonly used for collecting and managing critical information about issues like safety management plans or asset/vehicle tracking. Mining apps can save users hundreds of work hours as they come with customizable templates, forms, and checklists for several mining and processing operations. In addition, they are easy to share and are compatible with most modern smartphones and other portable devices or PC.
A major advantage of these apps is that many of them are accessible offline, so they remain functional in locations without internet coverage. Presently, mining apps are being used to carry out blasting calculations, to monitor safety procedures, for rock property analysis, and for many other functions. Some popular apps include the complete suite of five MiPlan apps (for comprehensive monitoring of drilling, blasting, excavation, human resources management, and equipment maintenance) and Pocket Blast Guide by Orica (for blasting calculations and conversions).
Cloud-hosted Information:Rather than moving paper manuals and documentation around the site, workers can easily use the internet to access data that has been stored on a remote server. With cloud technology, employees can view and alter essential information, wherever and whenever they need it. Furthermore, for mining projects that span multiple locations, cloud storage helps to ensure that all operations are communicated and executed in a standardized manner. The agility and control that cloud technology—combined with smartphones— offers is invaluable to mine operations.
Nevertheless, there are still limitations to smartphone usage in underground mines mainly due to challenges with signal strength and interference. Research is ongoing to address this issue and there should be a solution in the near future.
Phones and other mobile devices, such as tablets and laptops, are also applicable for maintenance activities in mines. For instance, new technologies allow mining trucks to be fitted with sensors that provide real-time data on any anomalies with oil levels, vibration patterns, heat, engine conditions, etc. This data is accessed via mobile maintenance software already installed in a smart mobile device. This kind of arrangement gives the maintenance department enough time to schedule servicing/repairs without excessive interference with production schedules. This technology is a more proactive strategy than the more conventional schedule-based maintenance programs, and it usually reduces maintenance costs significantly. Also, by using their smart devices, the maintenance team can collaborate better, they can access the same information in real-time, and monitor work progress without resorting to cumbersome paperwork.
As technology continues to radically transform mining, mobile devices are positioned to play more and more important roles in mining productivity, safety, and sustainability. Additionally, when new innovations are able to overcome the present challenges with underground smartphone reception, it would make an undeniable difference in emergency response and rescue operations as well as underground monitoring, communication, and tracking.
About the Author
Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO at Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy to use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.