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Digital blasting innovations paving the way to mining’s future

Embracing opportunities presented by digital technology, blasting on mines today plays a key role in defining what future mining will look like.

According to Christiaan Liebenberg, software product manager at blasting specialist BME, the process of digital transformation is also demanding unprecedented levels of collaboration. This includes mines’ ongoing engagement with service providers, as well as close cooperation between blasting service providers and their specialised technology partners.

“It is clear that, at its foundation, the mine of the future is being built on the power of data – and the high-quality decisions that good data enables,” says Liebenberg. “As consulting firm Deloitte noted in a recent report on the digital revolution in mining, the functions of planning and control are increasingly data-driven.”

By processing large volumes of valuable data in its ‘nerve centre’, the mine of the future can optimise volume, costs, capital expenditure and safety. When properly utilised, the data in this nerve centre can improve visualisation and reporting, short interval control, operations, future modelling, prediction and simulation.

Digital suite

“Having invested extensively over many years in electronic and digital aspects of our blasting offerings, BME today has a suite of resources that our customers can leverage in their technological journey,” Liebenberg adds.

“To highlight the integrated role that our products can play in taking mining forward, we have encapsulated these in our Blast Alliance brand.”

It starts with BME’s comprehensive blast planning software BLASTMAP which uses the power of modern computing to streamline the design process for each blast. With versions relevant to both surface and underground operations, the versatility and reliability of BLASTMAP is enhanced with the use of BME’s electronic detonators and world-renowned AXXIS digital initiation system. The software also allows for blast patterns to be tested and simulated before actual detonation, ensuring trouble-free blasts that deliver optimal results.

“This sets the scene for us to generate, upload, store and analyse large volumes of data related to each blast. Mines of the future not only use technology to monitor and control existing processes but must use that data productively to continuously improve performance on various fronts,” Liebenberg explains.

Tracking key parameters

In blasting, this includes carefully tracking a range of important parameters such as blasthole depth, stemming volumes and charge volumes. Traditionally, this was done manually in a process that could take days to find its way into management reports. The digital age is opening doors for these parameters to be measured and recorded in real time – giving supervisors and management an opportunity to intervene in the process in the interests of better results.

Mines will invariably have standards and protocols which define the acceptable tolerances on key operational parameters. In blasting, for instance, excessive over-charging holes will have cost implications and will affect the quality of the final blast. Supervisors therefore need to control adherence to set limits; to do this most effectively, they need realtime data – rather than a post-blast report.

“Digital technology has made huge strides in enabling the flow of data in real time,” adds Liebenberg. “With BME’s XPLOLOG cloud-based platform, for instance, management can access XPLOLOG and immediately see the progress of the blast preparation on the block.”

Streamlining operations

Liebenberg also highlights the growing role that sensors and telematics can play in efforts to gain better availability of explosive trucks on site – for streamlined operations and minimal disruption. In the future it will be possible for any standing time to be digitally logged by operators and categorised for management to identify any recurring themes. This data could then be timeously and systematically reviewed, leading to appropriate strategies to improve overall efficiency.

“This kind of data is very useful in informing maintenance schedules, for instance. Understanding more about the exact cause and nature of truck stoppages – which is easier when data is consistently captured and analysed – can help eliminate such downtime through the most suitable maintenance solutions,” adds Liebenberg.

Meanwhile, brand and marketing manager, Michelle Fedder emphasises that the quality of output at mine level is directly dependent on the quality of the respective inputs, placing the blasting function in a particularly important position.

“As blasting takes place so early in the mining cycle, it has considerable knock-on impacts on subsequent phases. Not only do blasting products and services contribute greatly to the downstream process, but so does the data which is generated from these activities,” says Fedder.

Continuous improvement

Future-oriented mines will invariably seek continuous improvement in blasting practice, which depends on detailed assessments of each blast. Where blasts are conducted every day – or even a few times a week – the data from each blast must be quickly generated and available. This is where platforms like XPLOLOG are crucial, as they can provide data that compares key elements of the planned blast with those of the actual blast.

Management can then play its role in identifying what can be done to avoid any challenges encountered. Without the right data, proposed solutions remain in the realm of guesswork. Fedder further reiterates the value of collaborative partnerships in forging mines of the future. “At BME collaboration with our other partners in the value chain, especially those whose technologies we leverage in our own solutions, is key to optimising the end-value and charting sustainable paths to success.”

Artificial intelligence

Liebenberg cites one example of how BME enhances its own driver safety performance with dashboard cameras with associated artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. By ‘learning’ about the actions of the driver in the cab – such as reaching for an object like a can or mobile phone – the solution can generate appropriate alerts to the supervisor. This enables the supervisor to manage possible risks, and address these with the driver.

“Mines and their suppliers will increasingly be looking for this kind of digital and intelligent technology, whose functions can be carefully defined according to particular conditions and needs,” he explains. “BME sees this as another potential contributor to driver safety, and we look forward to working closely with this technology partner in developing a solution to suit our requirements.”

In conclusion, Liebenbergs states that connectivity on mines remained a core feature on which the industry’s digital future relied. While major league miners could prioritise the considerable expenditure that this requires, reliable connectivity was more of a challenge for smaller, remote mines. Here again, collaborations would be vital – working both with governments in the provision of basic communication infrastructure and with technology companies to install affordable and effective on-mine networks.