AI Automation Mining

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a much touted technology in mining, it would seem that the sector is yet to fully embrace this advance technology.

Why is this and how can we insure that AI can be beneficial to mining in Africa. GERARD PETER reports.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 11, 2020
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According to Prof. Frederick Cawood, Director of Wits Mining Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, it will take a policy change to ensure that it can benefit mining in Africa.

Cawood was a panellist on a recent Mining Review Africa webinar titled Mining 2025: A 5-year vision for AI in mining. Cawood was joined on the panel by Eric Croeser, MD for Africa at Accenture Industry X and Jean-Jacques Verhaeghe, programme manager for real-time information management systems at Mandela Mining Precinct.

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The webinar focused on understanding AI, its benefits and how to incorporate it into operations.

When asked whether Africa was ready for the implementation of AI, Cawood said that the starting point is policy innovation. “The big issue for Africa is poverty.

AI is something that has to be incorporated into the continent’s mining vision. Because of the perceived threat to job losses, one has to find a balance between the introduction of technology and the poverty reality of the continent. You can’t avoid AI; it’s coming.

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“The secret is policy innovation and adopting technology with minimal disruption to the workplace without increasing the cost of business, and also without increasing the cost of consumer goods at the end of the line.”

Since AI is a relatively new concept in the mining industry, the sector is yet to fully understand what it truly means and how to incorporate it. Verhaeghe stated that the definition of AI is very broad.

“At its highest level, AI is part of digital transformation. It simply boils down to the fact that a machine has the cognitive abilities that we normally associate with humans such as sensing things, learning, reasoning and problem solving.

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“The fact is that AI seems so attractive to everyone is because it can do things quicker and better than what a human would typically be able to do,” he explained.

Veraeghe further added that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the implementation of AI but at the same time, it is hard to determine just where the industry is when it comes to adopting this technology.  

“There are varying scales of the adoption of AI in our mines. There are pockets of excellence but it’s so disparate in terms of where people and companies are at with it. At this point in time most companies are probably just experimenting with the concept,” he explains.

He further stated that there seems to be a lack of a cohesive vision across the industry. As such, what is needed is a digitalisation journey that is mapped out and very clearly and deliberately and intentionally drawn up at board level.

Man and machine collaboration

Addressing the subject of the current state of AI in mining and where it will be by 2025, Veraeghe explained that when looking at for any forward projection, we need to distinguish between the normal trends that we see in the economy and the structural shifts.

“There are two structural shifts that affected the mining industry. Those are big shifts that require deep innovation and deep thinking. One is the issue of decarbonisation and the other is how technology is affecting the mining workforce; more specifically how it leads to a new world of mining where machines and human beings need to collaborate in the workplace” he stated.

Veraeghe stated that AI enables novel production methods where machines do the hard work and humans can use sensors to do observations. “Of course, this affects how we collaborate in the workplace and it also effects roles and functions of people in the workplace.

“Furthermore, we still have a lot to do in order to get to zero harm as an industry and artificial intelligence can be the next step in working towards this zero harm.”

He further added that by 2025, AI will be visible in most work processes along the entire mining value chain. However, he cautioned that governments would have to put policies and laws will have to protect the human workforce. 

Meanwhile, Croeser stated that a lot of the AI technology that is implemented in mining has been tested in other industries such as oil and gas.

“If you just think about a continuous process, like oil and gas where you when you start from an exploration perspective. So essentially, we have looked at the processes within that industry and then start applying them to a mining process. So we currently delivering programs with our clients.”

He further pointed to the fact that recent research shows that there is R28 billion of value in artificial intelligence in mining.

“People stand in the way of value. So you need to take the people along. I believe that AI is only way to a fundamental step change in terms of how we run mines from an optimisation, safety and environmental sustainability perspective,” he concluded.