The Council for Geoscience (CGS) recognises the importance of information in addressing the challenges facing the mining industry as it embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
Rapid globalisation, which has characterised the earth’s landscape over the last three decades, has entailed an explosion in technological advances, effectively transforming the world into a global village.
This article first appeared in Mining Elites in Africa 2020
The phrase, 4IR was coined to describe this unprecedented fusion of technologies applied in production, information and communication.
Indeed, digital technologies have advanced to the point where virtually all industries depend on at least some of the benefits of 4IR. At the same time, natural and available land resources supporting life on earth have been placed under increasing and unprecedented pressure.
The sustainable limits for climate-changing gas emissions, biosphere integrity, land cover change, and biogeochemical flows, in particular nitrogen and phosphorous having already been exceeded.
Moreover, governments globally are recognising the urgency of committing themselves to addressing the challenges of climate change and its effects.
This recognition poses unique opportunities for the mining industry, as the demand for primary raw materials will shift away from traditional products, in particular, non-renewable fossil fuels, towards the commodities needed to generate clean energy and drive the digital era.
Data use at the CGS
Indeed, new data and information and access to this information is being generated at an ever-accelerating rate to facilitate informed decision making.
New types of data and increased spatial and temporal resolution of data create opportunities for all stages of the mining lifecycle, from exploration through production and operational monitoring to and post-closure environmental management.
Spaceborne and airborne sensors enable rapid, responsive decision making, with drone-based sensors opening up new opportunities for low-cost ultra-high-resolution, near-real-time monitoring.
As an example, the CGS routinely uses drone aerial photography to supplement lower-resolution aerial photography and satellite imagery in the investigation of mining environments.
Currently, the use of drone-borne thermal imaging for shallow groundwater studies is being investigated. The use of drones (Figure 1) allows the CGS to collect huge volumes of LIDAR and hyperspectral data, which can be used to devise the big data analytics algorithms.
Information from common earth observation bases, as envisaged in the European EO-MINERS project, where the CGS was an active participant, is also becoming ubiquitous, with mine operators, regulators and civil society using earth observation data and information to improve collective decision making.
The EO-MINERS project utilised field sites in South Africa, Europe and Central Asia where earth observation data were used to enhance environmental decision involving a number of mining areas.
Building 3D databases using old and new data
Both newly collected data as well as historical data are critical in the building of a database in three spatial dimensions. Multi-temporal datasets are also important for the monitoring of environmental change.
The CGS has been collecting data and compiling information on the geology of South Africa for more than a century. Much of this information is composed of what is now referred to as long-tail data (e.g. paper maps, printed reports etc.) in the form of paper records.
It will be necessary to digitise and code this information in order to incorporate it into modern digital databases and to allow for its interrogation using modern digital methods.
The CGS is currently using a combination of historical geological maps, mine plans and aerial photographs along with modern digital mapping products to understand the environmental and hydrological evolution of the Witwatersrand’s gold mines, throughout the mining era.
Role of artificial intelligence
In addition, the CGS is researching the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to solve complex geoscientific problems such as prediction of future mine water quality and geoscience hazards; multi-dataset integration for mine seismology, mineral and groundwater potential mapping.
The selection is based on the social merits of these applications and perceived societal impacts and the potential for scalable to the national scale. In the future prediction of mine water quality applications, for example, the research seeks to address the prediction of water quality in a mining area, information which is critical, inter alia, to the development of passive treatment plants and post-closure strategies.
The multi-dataset integration application intends take advantage of the power of AI to extract hidden relationships and patterns in datasets which is potentially useful in understanding the geological processes at various scales. Information extraction is useful in understanding mine seismicity that will feed directly to the mine health and safety champions in South African mines.
The application of AI in multi-dataset integration for mineral and groundwater potential mapping plays a pivotal role in efficiently reducing the exploration search area to more focussed zones, which help de-risk exploration and stimulate investment in the mining sector.
Artificial intelligence and big data
The CGS is actively developing machine learning algorithms that aim to improve mine health and safety as a key component of the digitalised mines of the future. An understanding of seismicity in active mining regions enables proper decision making regarding safety of workers.
Advances in information technology allow the development of complex geoscientific models using big data. To this end, the CGS is employing the services offered by the CSIR’s Centre for High Performance Computing to develop algorithms that allow the production of high-resolution models such as hazard maps, regional and national groundwater models and predictive capabilities in terms of minerals and energy.
Additionally the CGS is developing an advanced Python-based software package (PyGMI) for visualisation of multiple and complex geoscientific data in an integrated manner.
Future of mining
Using AI and big data technologies, CGS will redouble its efforts to collect and interpret information in view of generating relevant knowledge and disseminating pertinent multi-disciplinary geoscience datasets that addresses key issues across the entire mining value chain.
This geoscientific information is intended, not only to promote exploration and mining investment in Africa but also to address key societal challenges such as water, energy and geohazards in the pursuit of sustainable mining and development.
It is held that both green- and brownfields exploration is critical to the development of the mining sector in South Africa and globally. Mining the physical resources over time means that the quality deteriorates in that the resources become more costly and difficult to extract.
This implies that mining companies need to support and encourage purposeful innovation, which is a result of combining step-changes in technological innovation and sustainable mining. It is in this space where the geoscience solutions researched by the CGS are critical.
It is important that mining companies conduct re-skilling and up-skilling, which are key to the sector’s growth and sustainability. Mining companies need to work with the governments and encourage governments to adopt modern agile policies that are progressive and offer inclusive growth.
The vision of 4IR is of fully automated mines and technologically sophisticated ore-processing facilities. These digitalised mines of the future primarily aim to improve productivity and efficiency. Geoscience solutions that are developed by the CGS, such as the application of machine learning to big data analytics and proactive water treatment, are key to realising this vision.
Securing South Africa’s essential resources
The Council for Geoscience (CGS) is a national geoscience institute which harnesses innovative and sustainable geoscientific solutions in order to address a wide variety of societal challenges, both locally and globally.
Thus, the CGS has been collecting and analysing geoscience data in view of generating knowledge for over 100 years for this purpose. This experience has enabled the CGS to position itself an adaptive organisation that continuously applies innovative geoscience solutions in response to the ever-shifting societal challenges faced by humanity.
To this end, the strategic focus of the CGS aims, in particular, to:
- Map and characterise South Africa’s water resources;
- Ensure the safety of South Africans through the development of land and the provision of through geotechnical mapping;
- Promote and build South Africa’s mineral resource wealth;
- Secure future energy resources
- Foster the sustainable management of South Africa’s marine jurisdictions to capacitate the country’s blue economy; and
- Conduct leading geoscience innovation.
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