technology
Underground communications team testing concepts for line-of-sight and non-line of sight for data, visual and audio communications

The mining industry understands the need to modernise, the move towards adapting and changing a +100 year old industry has been difficult as the industry lacks digital technology in the face of the continuous change brought about by digital and the now imposing Industrie 4.0 (4IR), writes CHANTELLE KOTZE.

“Having the right information with the right person at the right time allows for a proactive response by management, which is critical in a mining environment”, says JEAN-JACQUES VERHAEGHE, programme manager for (RTIMS) at the Mandela Mining Precinct.

4IR: The future of mining is now

There is poor situational awareness underground as a result of limited interpretation capability of real-time data as well as audio and visual communications in particular for South Africa’s deep-level mines, which has necessitated the need for better use of the information generated within a mine.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 10, 2019
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Within the Mandela Mining Precinct, the need to modernise the mining industry is recognised as being greater than just the introduction of mechanisation with large capital equipment.

Modernisation refers to the improvement in process through the use of technology which at its core has a people-centric approach.

Thus the ability to convert data into information, wisdom and ultimately, knowledge, is essential and independent of the type of mining method used – be that conventional or mechanised.

The Real-Time Information Management Systems (RTIMS) programme has been developed to address this in a holistic manner and aims to improve data transmission, storage, dissemination, and information management tools, practices, and procedures for mining companies.

The real thrust of the research has therefore been towards managing and interpreting data to achieve a real-time decision making framework at the working place that can be implemented before the next shift starts to enable smarter and more accurate decision making that can improve the safety and efficiency of mining operations, explains Verhaeghe.

Taking the leap into 4IR

While RTIMS is one of the key ways to prepare the mining industry for embracing 4IR as it is capable of providing a holistic, integrated model by which to futureproof technology and equipment, it is difficult to determine to what extent mining companies are preparing for 4IR, which is a concern from a technology perspective as futureproofing (from a digital technology perspective) is generally not high up on agenda of most mining companies.

“The overarching objective of the RTIMS research is to develop Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and information and communications technology (ICT) frameworks and standards for digital technology adoption and applications in the mining industry,” Verhaeghe highlights.

He notes the importance of this as a means to assist mining companies that have previously been burned by investing in incompatible solutions for the long term.

A major focus of the research to date has therefore been to address the scalability and interoperability of these digital systems (also known as smart connected systems) as there are currently several white elephants at mining companies that have been sold, i.e point solutions, which are unable to deliver on what was promised.

“We therefore want to create or adopt a holistic RTIMS architecture for multipurpose requirements by developing or adopting common open-source tools and components required to enable these solutions which will fit into an end-to-end IIOT architecture,” explains Verhaeghe, adding that the mining industry has therefore tasked the RTIMS programme with the development of standards that suppliers of ICT and IoT or operational technology or software or data will have to comply with, as a means to de-risking the process of investment for them.

There is a perception that the mining industry lags in terms of digital transformation and is not ready to take the leap into 4IR. This is especially true when one considers that the biggest challenge lies in the industry’s inability to effectively use the data that is captured.

RTIMS programme roadmap

Currently nearing the end of the second year of the three-year programme, the 16 work packages within the RTIMS programme are at an average Technology Readiness Level of between 4 and 5, which is just one step away from the prototyping of development of a proof of concept.

To date, the RTIMS research team has identified and refined the mining industry’s requirements and designed and proven some of its concepts. The next step in the programme roadmap is to prove the integration of these concepts by the end of 2020.

“We will imminently begin designing the holistic model through which we will integrate these 16 components to ensure interoperability of the entire system,” says Verhaeghe.

While many of the 16 work packages entail the reconfiguration of existing technology, some of the work packages are testing the limits in terms of what has been done in the past.

One such example, says Verhaeghe, is using artificial intelligence at the edge, to improve and optimise proximity detection and collision avoidance systems underground. The focus is on predictive behaviour of the movement of machines and or people, timeously, before the potential of an unwanted collision situation arises.

Some of the successes by the RTIMS team to date has been advancing the integration of some of the core RTIMS work packages (including IOT, data, underground communications, sensors, visualisation and positioning and modelling concepts), proving the concept of a new underground communications technology, the ability to convert an analogue signal to digital as well as the ability to accommodate hybrid solutions for existing mines with legacy infrastructure.

Pursuing localisation

“As part of addressing and completing the research and development component of the RTIMS programme, we want to localise and commercialise the solutions within South Africa through the Mining Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa (MEMSA) – a mining industry cluster (housed within the Mandela Mining Precinct) – which aims to grow the local supply chain of capital equipment for the mining industry,” says Verhaeghe.

By making use of open-source tools and components, the enabling system infrastructure components and designs can be made available royalty-free to mines and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to ensure its wide adoption, further ensuring interoperability of all the seemingly disparate systems, and to overcome proprietary lock-ins by service providers.

Additionally, local ecosystems of products and services can be built. There will be a utility gain for mines and an economic multiplier effect by opening the ecosystem of RTIMS-based solutions to local OEMs.

Driving innovation for future sustainability

The rationale behind the establishment of the Mandela Mining Precinct was to create a single, central entity to guide, co-ordinate and deliver technological innovations and solutions for the mining industry.

This moves away from decentralised organisational initiatives which take place in a discrete fashion where inherent in this situation is the unwarranted duplication of efforts and lack of critical mass essential to research and development.

A year since its establishment in September 2018 and each of the six research programmes have made significant headway in co-ordinating their research activities to develop people, processes and technology – the integration of all of these together towards the creation of a more modern mining industry.