Technology has been at a record high in the mining industry as everyone is getting the hang of how ‘Industry 4.0’ is revolutionising the way mining is done. Not so long ago not many would have envisaged the current technological changes and advancements in the mining industry. Broadly speaking the ‘Internet of Things’ has contributed to the various changes implemented in the mining industry. The ability to remotely monitor activities and take readings in real time during work operations either as a measure of safety or just productivity checks is key to enhancing efficiency of the mining operations. Seamless use of autonomous mining vehicles is amongst the very advanced operational changes which is taking place concurrently with autonomous vehicle adoption world over. The extent to which technology is applicable should go hand in hand with its use for the betterment of human life which is evident in how data for coal dust mine levels in Queensland has been made publicly available on the internet for everyone to access it. The article seeks to address technological advancement in mining as a result of the ‘Internet of Things’ whilst highlighting the problems faced in the coal mines as a specific example and why transparency is important for achieving the best out of making data available for public deliberation and reference. 

Digital Mining

Monitoring and prediction of hazards in mines are essential for improving miners’ safety through minimising accidents and productivity of coal or minerals which can be achieved through digital mines based on the ‘Internet of Things’. A digital mine is the simulated version of a physical mine which includes mine-inclusive machinery and equipment as well as the production processes. The network consists of models, methods and tools backing the entire production operation. The benefits of a digital mine include continuous and consistent data management, production management and consequent introduction of engineering methods and tools. The multifaceted mining operation is catered for including roadways, mine mechanics, electrical facilities, mine ventilation, safety and environmental conditions. Digitizing mines creates a collaborative decision environment which quickly clears any bottlenecks across the value chain in addition to accountability to the key performance areas of the mining operations. Time is of the essence in mining operations hence collection of data in real time and how quick it feeds to rectification channels can increase the predictive tools to automated and imminent action. 

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Taking a good look at the control and management offered by a digital mine enables targeting specific mining operations but in order to further understand the concept it is imperative to highlight the elements and components controlled by the digital mine and these include:

  • Underground mine equipment in its entirety and proximity detection systems 
  • Mine face and strata visualization 
  • Electrical network, water drainage and air pressure infrastructure monitoring 
  • Conveyors, belts, bunker and transportation equipment 
  • Standstill monitoring for machinery and transportation equipment 
  • Mapping mining assets positions against geographical map for observation, supply and maintenance using wireless networks in underground mines
  • Miners wearable device technology and transportation tracking 
  • Ventilation and production 
  • Video integration and operator support through event-driven video control
  • Mine hazards and safety 

Capturing real time – real location data

Applications of wearable devices to the mining industry is another example of the use of technology for gathering data in the mining industry. Firstly, the SmartGlass developed in Canada is equipped with special features to improve the efficiency and safety of operations in hard rock mining. The smart eyewear includes time management for controlling mining equipment, free access to the most commonly used information and production process control and monitoring. Secondly, Deloitte Wearables also from Canada focused on a wearable smart helmet which containers sensors that detect levels of hazardous gases in the air, radiation sensor, temperature and humidity sensors. Remotely, the action of mine workers can be monitored via radio frequency identification tags for the administration of information about the locations of workers which helps with better management. Finally, in South Africa Expert Mining Solutions deployed the Life wearable device which incorporates sensors and actuators to acquire brain activities of equipment drivers and monitor fatigue at coal mines. Given how these technologies have really brought a different dynamic to real time monitoring of the mining environment and the worker, opportunity still lies with ability to detect coal dust allowable and respirable limits and notify immediately before overexposure takes place.  

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Coal mining as an example

The most pertinent example is coal mining hazards and safety measures are very important to the regulation of acceptable and allowable limits of exposure of coal dust to coal mine workers. Our discussion will focus on the coal mining hazards and safety measures in Queensland, Australia. Boasting a rich history in coal mining with current mines and reserves still to be utilised the mining of coal will continue for centuries to come. The need for energy in the form of coal also coincides with environmental and health problems attributed to coal combustion which relies strongly on making information about coal available. Comprehensive databases containing appropriate coal quality and emissions of coal for all registered coal mines can be useful for public consumption, coal mine workers and other stakeholders for sound decision making with regards to coal use. Chemically, coal databases should include information about proximate and ultimate analyses, sulfur form information, major and minor trace element concentrations, modes of occurrence information, cleanability and textural relationships, mineralogy, organic chemistry, petrography and leachability. 

Making a difference

Following the resurgence of Black Lung in Australia in the last 5 years it has been more important than ever to put systems in place for stringent checks and balances to eliminate the scourge of coal miner’s pneumoconiosis. The Department of Natural Resources and Mines made the dust monitoring results from Queensland underground coal mines available online for the first time in 2017 and have been published quarterly since to foster transparency and as part of implementing demands tabled for improving screening systems for coal workers. Perhaps now with Industry 4.0 upon us, the measurement of coal dust exposure can even be smarter and implement technologies that can record exposure results in real time which can collate and feed into the Depart of Natural Resources and Mines database as a mandatory rule. Important would be to compare submitted real time data to data submitted by the different mining companies. The role of the “Internet of Things” is pivotal in connecting the full scale mining operations and monitoring different aspects of the digital mine. This is important in detecting hazards before an accident happens, but most importantly if coal dust limits can be detected in real time the chances of overexposure to coal dust particles resulting in acute, accelerated and chronic coal dust related pulmonary conditions will be greatly minimised – particularly if coupled with dust mitigation technologies.

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REFERENCES 

  • Coal mine dust levels now online retrieved on 05/09/20 
  • Finkelman, R.B., and Gross, P.M.K. 1999. The types of data needed for assessing the environmental and human health impacts of coal. International Journal of Coal Geology. 40. 91-101. 
  • Chaulya, S.K., and Prasad, G.M. 2016. Formation of Digital Mine Using the Internet of Things. Scanning and Monitoring Technologies for Mines and Hazardous Areas. Elsevier Ltd. 
  • DuCarme, J. 2019. Developing effective proximity detection systems for underground coal mines. Advances in Productive, Safe, and Responsible Coal Mining. Elsevier Ltd. 
  • Mardonova, M., and Choi, Y. 2018. Review of Wearable Device Technology and Its Applications to the Mining Industry. Energies. 11:547. 1-14.
  • Pirjo, S., and Marko, P. 2016. Wireless networks in underground mines. Industrial Wireless Sensor Networks. Elsevier Ltd.