Machine-mounted sensors for smart mining operations

The Minerals Down Under Flagship aims to integrate individual sensors into a machine-mounted instrumentation system capable of controlling surface mining and processing operations. Gio Braidotti writes.

Sensors that can characterise the mining environment, locate mineral and metal ore deposits, and differentiate between different ore grades without the need to take samples from mines to laboratories for testing are being developed through the Minerals Down Under Flagship.

Through the Geologically Intelligent Mining project, the Flagship aims to integrate individual sensors into a machine-mounted instrumentation system capable of controlling surface mining and processing operations.

Heading the project is CSIRO mining engineer Dr Eleonora Widzyk-Capehart.

She says the project’s aim is to make mining more intelligent, automated and selective about ore grade, while making it safer for personnel and environmentally less disruptive.

“We want to develop robust, portable sensors to install on mining machinery, to provide information about geology and mineralisation without contacting the ground,” she says.

“Signals generated on-site can then be processed at a remote site and fed back to the machines so that extraction can occur automatically.”

To achieve that goal, a broad range of material characterisation techniques that use magnetic, laser, hyperspectral or ground-penetrating radar signals, are being evaluated.

Ultimately, Dr Widzyk-Capehart wants sensors for all materials of interest to the mining industry, be it coal, iron ore, or precious metals such as gold and silver.

To date, individual sensors demonstrating some of the principle physics are at various stages of development, from devices that are being commercialised through to prototypes undergoing testing on mining sites, as well as instruments still at the conceptual stage.

“A current favourite is the use of hyperspectral reflectance spectroscopy in the visible and near infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, part of which is well outside the human visible spectrum,”Dr Widzyk-Capehart says.

“HyLogging instruments based on this method have already been developed and are being routinely deployed by CSIRO and geological surveys for logging drilled core and chip samples to identify and estimate their mineral content, but are yet to be applied directly on mining equipment extracting the ore.”

The sensors, however, create a requirement for data processing that analyses individual signals, integrates information from different sensors, and interprets the data in ways that can control the mining and processing machinery.

“Part of the research and development is about how the data is processed and combined so that we can understand exactly what is in the ground,” Dr Widzyk-Capehart says.

“That information is then further processed to steer and control the machines. All these data processing and interoperability tools are also being developed at CSIRO.”

Full automation

Eventually, the goal is a fully automated system, with the operators located in a remote-control centre anywhere in the world.

While the Flagship provided the funding to kick-start the research and development work, commercial partners will subsequently be needed to test prototypes and ultimately commercialise the technology.

That means the involvement of both mining companies and manufacturers to help develop and build the sensors, and to provide technical support.

While the focus is on mining and processing operations, the researchers are aware that the technology under development has other, potentially far-reaching applications.

“Mining sites are dusty, dirty, harsh and potentially hazardous environments so new remote-sensing technology that works under these conditions could find uses in emergency rescue operations, perhaps involving sensing humans trapped in debris following an earthquake or bombing,” Dr Widzyk-Capehart says.

In fact, she considers mines such demanding environments that the Australian remote-sensing technology under development could someday find uses in space exploration to augment the characterisation of planets, moons or asteroids in far-flung corners of the solar system.


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*This article originally appeared in the October issue of CSIRO’s Process magazine.

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