You can expect to hear much debate about the future of mining in South Africa over the coming months, as the industry charter once more goes into review. Whatever the outcome of those discussions, Ansys passionately believes that the one certainty is that mines of the future will be smart.
Mines will become the ultimate measured environment, with remote sensors able to monitor everything, from gas levels to the stability of ground surfaces. These sensors will constantly feedback to systems which can analyse and alert operators of dangers ahead.
Autonomous and remote-controlled vehicles will increasingly become the norm, able to locate themselves in 3D space and position themselves around objects without human intervention. Maintenance regimes will become predictive, with more live monitoring of equipment to detect part failures before they happen.
The endgame is mines that are safer for workers, more efficient and more cost effective to run. But a future in which every mine is smart still a long way off.
Although there have been some early adopters of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, explains Product Engineer Michael Walters, South African mines on the whole haven’t embraced the technology yet. Partly this is because there are many technical challenges to operate networked equipment underground, and “plug and play” products are still in their infancy.
“Right now, there are underground mines which have wireless networks that run all the way to the rock face,” Walters says, “But for the most part, underground mines are still using UHF or VHF based communication systems”
The way IoT devices communicate underground is a critical issue, Walters says, because any network needs to be robust, with failsafe options that mean if one node or antenna goes down, overall network performance and connectivity isn’t affected. It also can’t interfere with emergency response channels.
The advantages make IoT adoption inevitable, though. Already the Safety and Productivity Solutions division at Ansys is working on solutions which can be commercialised to reduce the cost and difficulty of deployment.
“We already have a good background in the technology that is needed,” Walters says, “From our work deploying IoT systems in the rail industry.” Pivoting off that base and into the mining sector, we aim to develop systems that provide real-time, actionable information to mine personnel and supervisors.”