As a core economic activity in many countries around the world, mining is an intrinsic part of modern society.
But even though mining is commonplace, and mining technology has evolved somewhat over the last century to better process the raw materials we need to manufacture the devices, vehicles, machinery and buildings we use today, it is still very dangerous.
In fact, there has been a massive outcry against the high number of mining accident fatalities in South Africa this year, as the number of fatalities rose to 58 (a number that is already higher than the number of fatalities during the same period in 2017).
We touched on some of the many innovative technologies that are being developed in the mining sector in a previous post, but because safety is such a major concern in the mining industry at the moment, it’s relevant to have a look at some of the ways that technology can be used to make mining safer.
Why is mining so dangerous in the first place?
Besides the discomfort that comes with being kilometres underground, one of the most dangerous effects of mining comes from having to blast rocks to get to ore reefs (like gold), which leads to rockfalls that can crush or trap unfortunate mine workers.
Essentially, it is just very difficult to get a holistic view of all the rock formations underground, and while 3D mapping technology does help to get a better understanding of the intricacies of an underground mine, more advanced mining technology is needed to better understand the impact of drilling and explosions on rock structures, so that accidents can be prevented.
Using mining technology to create innovative safety applications
To avoid rock falls, or being trapped behind one of them, the following technology is being developed that allows for improved safety and efficiency underground:
The use of advanced robotics underground means that less humans need to be underground, which means that there is a statistically lower chance of injuries and fatalities.
As part of the South African government’s Operation Phakisa, the CSIR has recently made public all of the innovative mining technology that they’re working on, which includes a robot platform called the “Monster” which has been developed to assess and identify risks underground.
2. Monitoring Technology
With the intensive blasting and drilling that goes on underground, unpredictable and potentially catastrophic seismic events do occur, which is why the CSIR has developed mining technology called “RockPulse”, which acts as an early warning system by constantly monitoring rock masses for any kind of potentially dangerous activity.
Given the history of radar technology in South Africa, it’s no surprise that the CSIR has developed radar technology that allows for miners to “see through” rock faces to where the reefs are (which allows for more effective drilling and explosion planning).
This particular mining technology, known as “GlassRock” also includes monitoring systems that can identity mine workers underground, so that any accidental collisions can be avoided (by developing ways to create safe passage for miners and other underground personnel).
The importance of software in bringing it all together
All of the above kinds of technological developments are are set to have a profound impact on mining safety, but to really make these kinds of exciting devices viable, there needs to be solid underlying software programmes and frameworks to support, monitor and consistently improve the way these are used underground.
If we also look at the potential of blockchain technology for example, smart contracts could be introduced to increase efficiency in the safety approval process (which is a lengthy procedure), as well as create systems whereby data across mines can be collated for greater transparency and improved safety monitoring.
According to a recent report on the future of mining by PwC, further applications of cutting-edge technologies like blockchain in the mining industry include more effective ways of tracing the origin of raw materials, easier facilitation of payments across international borders and improving the overall efficiency of the supply chain (as in any other industry).
The future of innovative applications in the mining industry
We’ve only really scratched the surface, so to speak, of the kinds of innovative applications that could be applied in the mining sector.
As technologies continue to evolve, and we find more and more efficient ways of extracting and processing raw materials, it’s exciting to think of how much more streamlined mining processes could be in the years ahead.
For now though, while safety remains the focus of current mining operations, technology that can improve and provide a more holistic view of mining processes will go a long way to reducing fatalities and ensuring that health and safety is prioritised.