A Trifecta of Emerging Mining Technologies in the Air, on Land and Underground

June 28, 2023

High-tech innovations in mining present literal—and virtual—gold mines of opportunity.

Mining operations control room

Faculty, staff, researchers, and students at the University of Arizona School of Mining & Mineral Resources are at the center of a trio of technology—drones, autonomous vehicles and digital twins—set to transform efficiency, safety, and sustainability in the mining industry on a global scale.

Drones—Data Collection and Beyond 

Widely recognized for recreational and commercial applications, drones have been increasingly tapped in mining over the past five years. Applications range from data collection and monitoring of daily site operations to industrial partnerships with autonomous vehicles.

Using a drone in an open-pit mine in Arizona.

“A lot of this automation, whether aerial systems or unattended ground vehicles, are in capacity because we have a workforce shortfall. It is a way to optimize the workforce. And since we are risk-averse, we can use this technology in hazardous environments instead of putting miners, geologists, engineers and support personnel at risk,” said Dean Riley, a research scientist and Director of the Hyperspectral Research Consortium with the UArizona Department of Mining & Geological Engineering and the School of Mining & Mineral Resources. An expert in Remote Sensing and Hyperspectral Imaging (HSI), Riley is currently developing a short-course in HSI slated to be available to UArizona students and industry in January 2024.

Drones are routinely equipped with sensors to accomplish various tasks: Electro-optical devices can map and continually provide updates on mine operations; Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors collect volumetric calculations of ore stockpiles and waste and also evaluate, map and survey open-pit and pre-mining locations; and thermal infrared cameras detect temperature differences to aid in mineral extraction and assist with maintenance of electrical and mechanical systems. Additionally, geophysical instrumentation such as gravity, magnetics, electro-magnetics, radiometrics, and hyperspectral sensors can be flown on drones and assist with data collection and exploration of minerals surrounding mines. These instruments are also used in geometallurgy and characterization and safety of tailings.

“That is another beauty of drones: The sensors they carry allow for collection of a higher density of information than you would receive from aircraft, satellites, or ground crews. Drones have a super ability to collect a lot of data in a much more cost-effective manner to provide information and knowledge for timely decisions,” said Riley.

In the Driver’s Seat with Autonomous Vehicles

haul trucks and excavator in an open-pit mine

Like their aerial counterparts, autonomous vehicles—haul trucks, loaders, drills, scoops and other equipment used in exploration and excavation—offer numerous benefits for the mining industry. Rapidly expanding autonomous and semi-autonomous mining technology can help reduce emissions, improve safety and increase productivity.

“With autonomous vehicles, one of the things we emphasize is that people’s jobs won’t disappear: Their roles will just change. They will move away from driving heavy equipment and performing repetitive tasks in hazardous situations to monitoring vehicles and other higher-level tasks. The workforce will be more digitally enabled,” said Nathalie Risso, who holds a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering. As director of the UArizona Mine Automation and Autonomous Systems Lab, Risso works closely with colleagues and students campus-wide on digital innovation and research.

Recently she collaborated with Brad Ross, Ph.D., Co-Director of the UArizona Geotechnical Center of Excellence, as he mentored a team of six students for a senior capstone project involving identification and implementation of methodology to place autonomous vehicles in a North American mine.

Daouda Berthe

Daouda Berthe with a poster on the autonomous fleet team project

“Our team had to research whether it was economically viable to go fully autonomous and we had to put metrics behind it,” said Daouda Berthe, a team member who graduated with a B.S. in Mining and Geological Engineering in May. The team developed three scenarios: a baseline metric with retention of man-operated trucks; a projection based on retrofitting traditional haul trucks into autonomous vehicles; and a case based on the purchase of new autonomous vehicles.

The students gained valuable real-world experience. They also gained insight into the fact that humans remain vital to the planning, development and implementation of new technologies and systems. “People must be at the center of the design. The human factor must be involved for optimal operation. Additionally, people are very excited to see students involved in the industry and to see the industry involved in these innovative mining methodologies,” Berthe said.

Virtual Reality in Mining: Prospecting with Digital Twins

Digital twins offer another form of emerging technology with exciting potential.

“The world is changing. Digital Twins is part of Industry 4.0 technologies like Artificial Intelligence that are creating lots of ‘buzz.’ We want our students to be exposed to that from the ground up and want them to be able to integrate it well into the mining domain,” said Angelina Anani, Ph.D., Associate Professor with the Department of Mining & Geological Engineering.

A virtual representation of the physical world, a digital twin can serve as a tool to train employees in data collection, equipment operation, remote work, and safety protocols. Utilizing computers or virtual reality goggles, digital twins are also an effective communication tool between management and stakeholders. The virtual replications are typically generated from a 3D model built from real-world scans. They display and constantly update data from sensors to reflect progressions and changes in the virtual world with the goal of identifying and mitigating potential risks and optimizing procedures in real life. 

digital twin

“We can create a virtual replica of different equipment and systems in mines and monitor these in near real-time to make sure they are operating efficiently and safely,” said Anani.

Digital twins that simulate mining environments can also stage different scenarios—fires, explosions, equipment problems and other disruptions—that provide information and training for pre-emptive and emergency planning without requiring employees to be on site. “You can’t do that with a real system because it would mean actually creating an incident and we don’t want to do that. Using a replica of the real system, we can create these different scenarios to actually train mine workers with minimal risk,” said Anani.

Economic, Environmental and Social Impact

With environmental and social concerns at the forefront in mining, the potential collective impact of digital twins, drones, autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies is significant. In the quest for sustainable mining solutions, the School of Mining & Mineral Resources facilitates collaborations between faculty and researchers in engineering, science and many other disciplines across campus.

“Mining companies can use a variety of innovative technologies to monitor site operations and to prevent environmental challenges that may arise. The constant surveillance and the information collected help the mining industry to be really cognizant of environmental and social concerns and to engage responsibly in partnerships with local communities,” said Riley.

Nathalie Risso
Angelina Anani