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There are a lot of moving pieces in the picture being formed at countless public industry forums and private strategy meetings of the so-called mine of the future. We asked leaders across the exploration, mining, consulting, finance and advisory fields about significant shifts they were watching closely this year, and why.

It won’t surprise many to hear that machine learning and AI came up a few times in discussions, though not always for the most obvious reasons.

Many mining companies were already heavily invested in AI, said a senior mining technical leader, “they just don’t know it”.

More visible is the industry’s heavy uptake of sensors and connected software.

The massive transformative potential of this combination is set to become increasingly apparent in 2024.

Automation and robotics, and electrification technologies, were also top of mind among the cross-section of industry representatives.

Despite the view of people like CITIC Pacific’s Mark O’Brien on AI’s creeping ubiquitousness, most see the “smart mining era” being in its infancy.

There is tremendous latent potential for technology to help shape new projects, optimise returns from existing operations and infrastructure, and change mining’s “dirty, wasteful, risky” image, according to a mining and metals tech fund manager.

“We think we’re a small single-digit percentage of the way into this growth market,” said Paul House, CEO of Australia’s Imdex, one of the world’s few genuine mining-tech companies with annual sales above US$300 million.

“Early adopters [of technology in mining] tend to fall into two categories: those with really big problems, or those with really innovative leadership.

“And we don’t mind which one comes first. They both are early adopters.

“To date we’ve been more dependent on innovative leadership.

“Increasingly in the current climate, you’re finding big problems coming to the fore. Asset write-offs are a feature of a reporting period for every mining company now. There’s a rising cost environment, with low unemployment and high labour rates. And lower productivity.

“At one point or another, as has happened in industry after industry, as has happened decade after decade, those compression waves lead to step changes in innovation.

“You have mini-industrial revolutions in whatever sector happens to be under those pressure points.”

Bespoke sensors and data analytics tools are driving Imdex’s growth.

More broadly, “there is an ever-increasing array of smart sensors available, with declining costs and more well-defined use cases proven in operations”, said Datamine CEO Dylan Webb.

“This will drive increasing adoption of sensors and provide significant opportunities to improve mining efficiency,” he said.

“As a software provider, Datamine is constantly looking at ways to interpret and analyse new data sources to improve an existing decision-making process or establish new workflows for previously unaddressed problems.”

About 70% of the 250 companies featured in InvestMETS.com’s recent global listing of mining and metals tech leaders are delivering sensor and software products to the industry.

O’Brien, general manager for digital technology and innovation at iron ore producer, CITIC, believes many of the products already have “baked-in” AI, or machine learning (ML), elements. And that they are only going to become more sophisticated and useful.

“AI will get more ubiquitous in terms of where you find it but we will notice it less and less in some respects,” O’Brien said on a recent podcast.

“One of the things people often ask me is, is your mining company doing anything with AI?

“And I’m like, of course, and so is yours. And they say, what do you mean – we don’t have a team working on AI. And I say, you don’t need to.

“Every one of your vendors has AI baked into their tools, all the way from pit to port. All the way through that there are systems that are monitoring, systems that are optimising, systems that are doing health-type stuff on different equipment, [and] safety systems. Every cybersecurity-type tool and platform has machine learning in it.

“Mining, like a lot of manufacturing-type endeavours, has a lot of moving parts.

“There’s a lot of things to optimise right across our whole value chain. There is a lot of monitoring of equipment going on. And these are things where tools that use machine learnings can do an exceptional job – better than any human.

“We have huge ultra-class trucks that are pushing out massive amounts of data across a number of channels on the various sub-components and we’re able to monitor all that stuff and keep an eye on it, correlate that data and build models that tell us if these four things start to do interesting things there might be a problem.

“These are things that humans can’t do that very well but machine learning algorithms are exceptional at.”

Jason Price, executive director at leading mining-tech advisory firm, Atrico, said sensor technology was creating new standardised data sets that were key to unlocking fresh insights and value propositions in mining.

He said ML and large standardised data sets were important enablers for higher-order AI work in the industry.

Former Anglo American head of innovation, David Pugh said he was intrigued to see how AI and knowledge-based approaches might transform a range of mine support functions, by augmenting human strengths and improving outcomes.

“There’s a huge range of companies working here outside of mining that may well have a large and perhaps unexpected impact on mining and mining tech,” he said.

The mining industry has, and continues to, adopt and adapt technology from other industries, which is significant given the exponential growth of investment in global tech.

The International Energy Agency says global energy transition investment hit $1.8 trillion in 2023, a new record. AI start-up funding reportedly topped $50 billion last year. McKinsey & Co says investment in quantum computing start-ups hit a new high of $2.35 billion the previous year.

The global nanotechnology market is meanwhile forecast to grow from about $79 billion in 2023 to $250 billion by 2030; circa-$72 billion of global robotics tech sales in 2022 could become $283 billion by 2032; and a cloud computing market worth around $540 billion in 2022 might explode to $1720 billion by 2030.

And a commercial space market worth a meagre $280 billion in 2010 could grow to $1 trillion by 2030.

“The majority of what is happening in mining has originated in other industries,” said Imdex CEO, House. “If you look at electrification, automation, and so on.

“Even in our business [sub-surface rock sensing and analytics] a lot of what we’re doing is going down the pathways that the oil and gas industry went down.

“You have to know your industry.

“The knowledge inside of the hard rock minerals industry is important.

“But a lot of the signposts have been laid out for us by industries that have gone before us.”

House said there was a lot of emerging mining-related sub-surface sensing and imaging technology: “A lot of it I’d say is still a work in progress.

“There is no single silver bullet that will comprehensively address orebody knowledge.

“Even when you build one of these sensors you’ve got the twin challenges of technical development and user experience. And then you have the cousin come along, and that is change management.

“That’s the holy grail for mining”

“So the real step change in our industry is not just going to come from the ability to measure the rock, it’s going to come from the ability to do it faster and it’s going to come from the ability to actually make better decisions off the back of it.

“For that to happen you need to replumb entire workflows, so the way you mine tomorrow needs to be different from the way you mine today.

“The way you make decisions needs to take advantage of real-time data, assuming you can originate that data, which is the barrier that is slowly being broken.

“You then need to decide, fine, once I’ve got that data, what decision can I make differently or faster. In [manufacturing] you have the concept of short interval control. Imagine short interval control in a mining production environment, around the actual orebody.

“That’s the holy grail for mining.

“For that to happen you’ve got to have the technology to measure the rock in sufficient granularity … and you’ve then got to know what you would do with that information and have the infrastructure in place to enable action.

“All of that is what unlocks the value. It has a flywheel effect.”

Webb said transparency, control and optimisation of the full value chain through integrated technology had become a priority for many of Datamine’s customers.

“We often start with a specific priority area such as metal accounting, ore control, dispatch, or stockpiling, implementing a solution that provides immediate value,” he said.

“It is then possible to extend digital transformation across the broader value chain in stages, avoiding the risk and complexity of a single, giant project.”

Webb said Datamine’s sustainability software business had also doubled in size in each of the past two years.

“Greater executive focus on health, safety, environment and stakeholder management has driven demand for professionally designed and supported solutions to replace ad-hoc spreadsheets, inhouse systems and even paper-based systems that were the norm on mine sites in the past.

“We expect this to continue in 2024 and see similar trends for these solutions in adjacent industries such as manufacturing, utilities and construction as well as mining.”

“The lines between software and equipment will be increasingly blurred”

Peter Johnson, executive chair at large mining software and survey tech company, Maptek, said the industry’s growing skills deficit would continue to be a driver this year for “automation, efficiency and accuracy, with reduced reliance on people and experience”.

“Particularly in bulk commodities, the scale and strong cash flows will drive ongoing investment in technologies that will help contribute to margins and volume growth,” he said.

“Automation particularly is a key ingredient in the energy transition and carbon footprint reduction for a mining operation and the lines between software and equipment will be increasingly blurred.”

Space to grow

Michelle Keegan, a mining engineer and program director at AROSE, said companies such as Australia’s Advanced Navigation were meanwhile emblematic of a growing terrestrial mining and commercial space sector technological intersection. Advanced Navigation had recently supplied similar tech into the Pilbara iron ore mining sector and sub-sea marine applications, and were involved in the IM-1 (Intuitive Machines-NASA) Moon landing.

Keegan said satellite communications and imagery, navigation, sub-surface exploration and robotics were at the forefront of scientific, R&D and commercial exchanges between the two industries.

“The space race will see more and more missions to the Moon and eventually some kind of longer-term presence,” she said.

“All of this requires transfer of knowledge from the mining sector in approaches to infrastructure design and build, for example. Game changers will be driven in the areas of metal extraction and processing.

“We are well known for our remote operations capability in mining and with the space race we’re seeing more interest in tapping into the knowledge behind this.

“A [focus on] smaller footprint, more efficient mining operations is also driving an increased uptake in mineral sensing in mine and on-belt [bulk material conveyors].

“XRF has been used on all Mars rovers. Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) is used now also.

“When you take a look at the exhibition areas at conferences, there is an increasing number of sensing companies.

“The area of battery development, energy storage, energy management and energy supply are also huge areas for overlap.

“This includes micro nuclear … with Rolls Royce actively seeking remote mine site use cases for their tech currently being designed for the Moon.

“The ability to meet our decarb targets is driving more R&D and tech deployment, while operation on the Moon for long periods on single missions requires advanced battery tech and energy optimisation.

“The ongoing focus on sustainability in space is driving more in-orbit maintenance and resupply, which will have impacts back on Earth with respect to the application of robotics and manufacturing [3D printing].”

Exploration

Atrico’s Price said it was “hard to go past” the application of AI in exploration as a potential game changer in mining.

“Things that change the game are massive new discoveries,” he said.

“Discovery of new, large copper resources is a big deal.”

CITIC’s O’Brien said: “There is a lot of machine learning going into exploration.

“In the past people would look at drilling data and things like this and assess this stuff themselves manually.

“Now we’re seeing a lot of systems that can take drill cores and clusters of exploration data and actually begin to process it in very advanced ways.

“You can drill a lot less holes. Drilling is very expensive. If you can get the same types of insights into what’s going on with fewer holes and better outputs from the data you’re collecting then these are all high value ways we’re using the data we’re collecting.”