How the Internet of Things can meet expectations in mining

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the few much-hyped technology innovations that is likely to live up to expectations.

In the coming years, IoT is likely to be as disruptive as smartphones, fundamentally altering the way businesses operate.

The mining industry is set to reap significant benefits from the introduction of IoT. In fact, The Economist says 38 per cent of businesses believe IoT will have a major impact over the next three years.

That means mining businesses must move fast to stay ahead of competitors who will use IoT devices and applications to save money, operate more safely, and be more efficient.

The IoT relies on sensors to send information back to a central location. This sensor data can range from checking the temperature on a piece of equipment for improved maintenance to monitoring a miner’s helmet for impacts, falls detection and geolocation to better manage health and safety risks.

The volume of data sent back by these sensors can be massive but each individual message is minuscule; the largest message would be GPS coordinates at six bytes.

Yet, according to Freescale, the IoT will create 22 times more data traffic by 2020. Frost and Sullivan say 40 per cent of that data will come from connected sensors. This indicates the scale at which IoT will be adopted across all industries.

Thinxtra’s Loic Barancourt

To fully leverage IoT devices, businesses must manage four key issues: the range of the device’s connectivity; the cost of connecting the device; the device’s battery life; and the security of the information being transmitted to and from the IoT device.

These issues can be solved by using a solution purpose-built for the IoT, comprising devices and a network connected to cloud.

Mining operations are, by nature, usually located a long way away from urban centres. This can sometimes mean internet connectivity is low or patchy, making it difficult to use IoT devices. Therefore, mining operations should look for an IoT solution that leverages an IoT network that offers long distance coverage.

Using a dedicated IoT network such as Sigfox avoids the high costs associated with using the standard cellular network to leverage IoT applications. Each device can cost as little as two dollars per year to keep connecting to the cloud.

Battery life is also an issue, particularly in remote sensors. The IoT offers opportunities to remove people from some of the more dangerous jobs, putting them in remote operating centres where they can monitor the output of sensors in those dangerous areas.

However, if device batteries need to be recharged or replaced regularly, it can create extra work and negate some of the benefits. Mining organisations should therefore look for devices that offer a long battery life of up to 10 years using a standard battery. This keeps costs low and lets mining businesses take full advantage of the sensors.

Similarly, sensors can be placed in wearable items like helmets to help keep miners safe on the job. These sensors can monitor heat and other conditions to proactively address issues that can lead to heatstroke, accidents, or ill health.

Depending on the application, sensors can monitor heart rate, ambient temperature, body temperature, ultraviolet light, impacts, air quality and more. They can also include a location system to keep track of where miners are in case an incident is detected.

Managers can also check sensor information against incident reports to ensure staff are managing occupational health and safety (OH&S) requirements appropriately. For example, if a helmet has registered a hard impact but there is no incident report on file, managers may want to investigate to see whether there was an incident that needs to be followed up.

Mining operations can also use IoT sensors to track assets from trucks to tools, delivering live information on asset location, status, and motion. They can analyse the data returned from these sensors to paint a picture of how assets are used throughout the organisation, uncovering opportunities for improved efficiencies.

For example, by analysing the data, a logistics manager may see that trucks aren’t being used for optimum efficiency. They can then change routes or shifts to maximise efficiency and reduce fuel and maintenance costs, and deploy staff more efficiently.

The IoT lets mining organisations leverage automation and proactive maintenance to deliver safer working conditions and a more efficient operation. IoT devices and applications let mining businesses gather information from places and in ways that, previously, would have been cost-prohibitive to achieve.

The low cost, simplicity, and small size of IoT sensors makes it possible for mining businesses to get that information from anywhere throughout the operation.

By bringing information together from previously-disparate sources, business leaders can get an overarching view of the organisation so they can make smarter decisions, faster.

In the past, to gather all of this information and analyse it would have taken so long that the information would have been out of date and, therefore, far less useful. Now, businesses can see the information they need in near real-time, letting them take action sooner for better business outcomes.

Loic Barancourt is the chief executive officer of Thinxtra. This article also appears in the June edition of Australian Mining.