“…we miners have little choice but to adopt the mindset of Silicon Valley… we will seek to take a new approach to capitalise on the megatrends… of the future…”
– Bold Baatar, Chief Executive – Energy & Minerals, Rio Tinto
Mining industry – at the cusp of change
Surviving competitively afloat the mining industry’s ocean of high and low tides will require firms to transform. Climate change, declining ore-grades, disruptive technological-breakthroughs, ever-tightening safety and environmental regulations – are today’s norms. To cope with these changes, mining firms must embrace digitization with open arms. Today, their competitive edge is defined by how well they organize, manage and process data to optimise performance.
Rio Tinto’s ‘Intelligent’ mines – digging data more than strata
Rio Tinto is one of the world’s leading mining corporations with ~$40B in revenues, ~50000 employees and leadership in extraction of many commodities including coal, diamonds, iron-ore and copper. Spotting trends and adapting to changes has been their ethos for 145 years. In 2008, Rio Tinto launched the Mine of the Future program to develop technological breakthroughs to extract minerals from deeper levels while improving operational efficiencies, safety and reducing environmental impacts.
Owning over 80 automated driver-less hauling-trucks that use GPS-courses to navigate complex terrains while avoiding their peers, Rio has improved material-movement efficiency (15% cost-reduction) and productivity significantly. Their automated-drills and automated-blasters have enabled operators to run multiple rigs from an offsite-console, improving safety tremendously.
Internet-of-Things technology and millions of terabytes of data power these systems. Each haul-truck has 45 sensors, each processing 5TB of data daily; each processing-plant has more than 30000 sensors. Utilising machine learning has enabled Rio to extract invaluable insights from this data-stream. Their Predictive-Asset-Health tool utilizes advanced-modelling to identify variations in temperature, speed and vibration through millions of lines of sensor-outputs, performing predictive-maintenance on trucks, increasing their technical-life by over 20%.
“…one of our haul-truck drivers with a passion for computers… developed an integrated real-time digital-monitoring-system for the entire pit, bringing together all streams of data in a highly usable, 3D-touchpoint, visual platform – integrating drill, dig, load and haul data, equipment performance and safety management – all in one place”
– Bold Baatar 
Rio’s Operations Centre in Perth is a large-scale application of this same principle – Digital-twinning (replication of real-time operations on a virtual console). Leveraging AI tools, this unit handles more than 2.4TB of data/minute from millions of sensors across 16 mines and 1000 miles of rail by integrating them into a central processer that allows offsite operators to make data-driven decisions.
Also being controlled by them are the world’s biggest robots – the 1.5-mile-long, 244-car ‘Autohaul’ driver-less trains carrying 28000 tons of iron-ore across large distances. Once on their course, the multitude of sensors on their wheels and couplers enable their on-board computers to communicate with their counterparts in Perth, empowering the actuators to make decisions. Removing the need to transport drivers across a million risky miles annually not only saves lives, but also saves cycle-time by eliminating unwanted stoppages. What next – autonomous-ships?
AI has the power to reduce 610 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, save a 1000 lives, prevent 44000 injuries, and create a value of $320 billion for the industry over the next decade. Becoming an insights-driven-organization is the next step for Rio. Shifting away from traditional ERP-systems to cloud-based platforms will enable a more judicious use of this data, generating insights from real-time and historical analysis, to inform day-to-day decision making.
Can Wearable VR/AR-technologies like glasses, watches and vital-trackers help miners interact with systems and robots around them, simultaneously allowing central-management to capture critical real-time information and provide immediate remote assistance in case of medical emergencies?
‘Intelligent’ drones performing in-situ 3D-scanning can be used to observe rock-faces that are at impossible angles to otherwise observe, signalling commands to auto-drillers to make better drilling decisions.
Long term, Artificial-Intelligence coupled with swarm-robotics can open new avenues. Cooperative segregation-bots can leverage machine learning and image-processing techniques to match against a continuously evolving image-database helping automatically separate valuable ores from debris, significantly reducing human involvement in high-risk operations. Who knows, one day swarms of underwater-mining-robots may provide access to billions of tonnes of unexplored minerals.
In parallel, upskilling humans through vocational technology-training is crucial, given the pace at which we are migrating toward algorithmic decision-making. Once mastered, AI will be the foundation for marketing initiatives – tracking consumer demands, global economic trends and emergence of new technologies to assess profitable commodities of the future. Blockchain technologies will increase transparency in transactions, enabling stakeholders to verify Rio’s ethical sourcing practices.
With all the technological advancements, what if AI results in drastic reduction of human employment? On the contrary, what if the upfront investments are too astronomical to even consider? Will radical advancements take Rio to mining on iron-rich asteroids? Or, will it result in major workforce-upheavals?
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