How the IoT is affecting exploration mining – a Q&A with Michelle Carey, IMDEX's Global Manager Integrated solutions
Q: Do you think the global minerals industry is beginning to embrace digital innovation to improve productivity?
A: Yes. After a few years of going to conferences and listening to people talking about this, we are now starting to see evidence of an actual change occurring. Increasingly drilling contractors and resource companies have been embracing technologies to reduce costs and enhance efficiencies. A key focus over the past four years has been to create an ‘IoT Infrastructure’ to allow data delivery for all of our instruments. We have seen strong demand and increasing uptake our connected tools that can deliver real-time or near real-time data through IMDEXHUB-IQTM.
Q: What do you think is driving the digital imperative within the global minerals exploration?
A: There are several main drivers at play. The first is associated with the success rate of the industry as a whole. Plenty of data has been presented by industry commentators and consultants like Richard Schodde. Their research suggests that although we have been spending an increasing about of money on minerals exploration, we are not discovering more – indeed we are discovering less. So we need to do things differently.
There are a lot of facets to this; however, a big one is supplying geologists with information in a timely manner to allow them to make good decisions. For example geologists routinely have to make decisions to keep drilling or stop holes – if they get it wrong money is wasted or worse, a major discovery is missed. Historically these vital decisions had to be made by looking at the rocks, now sensors can provide data in real time to allow decision makers anywhere in the world make that call.
The second driver is getting people out of the field, this is mainly around safety – driving is one of the riskiest activities in the exploration process, but there is also a significant cost involved in having people in the field.
Q: What technologies, or clusters of technologies, will have the greatest impact on minerals exploration?
A: Well the Holy Grail for exploration will continue to be a tool that can detect buried ore bodies from the surface – cheaply! Assuming we won’t get that, there are developments in three technology areas that are looking to revolutionise the way we explore.
The first of these is cheaper drilling technologies. Given we will have to continue drilling holes – through deeper and deeper cover – the economics of exploration is dependent on the cost of drilling. The cheaper we can drill, the more holes we can drill, the more we will find – it is that simple.
The second area is sensors. More and more instruments that used to be stuck in a laboratory or only operable by professionals are being simplified so that they can be deployed by drillers or geologists to allow instant data collection.
The final area is data analytics. Like the rest of the world geologists are inundated with data that they struggle to make sense of. Analytics to turn that data into things like predicted rock types and vectors to ore, will make a large difference to the exploration success rate.
Q: How could the adoption of these technologies change the traditional workflows?
A: There are some very large potential changes. Consider the current standard exploration campaign. A geologist sits in their office and plans a drilling campaign, a month later they might go into the field and drill that program, samples then go to the lab, data is received a month to three months later, then a geologist interprets it and decides what to do next . This can take three to six months.
Imagine if a geologist received data as soon as a hole was drilled and could plan the next one straight away processing in weeks what used to take months and with the ability to adjust things on the fly.
Another big workflow change is the potential for geology to evolve into something that happens in a remote command centre rather than next to a drill rig. This is already happening in the oil and gas sector so it is not unrealistic.
Q: Are there any current practices or processes that may become redundant in the future due to digital innovation?
A: It is almost heresy to say this, however, the idea of a geologist logging a rock using visual observations may well die out.
Modern sensors and analytics will allow this to be replaced by objective, repeatable classifications. Of course the geologists still have an important role making use of this information, but their role as data collectors will decrease.
Another big one that really needs to be phased out as quickly as possible is paper-based data collection. This is still surprisingly prevalent, there are significant chain of custody and data rehandling issues around it and it just isn’t necessary in the current world where sensors can collect all of this data and transfer it without the need for human hands touching it.
Q: The economic benefits digital technologies can bring to mineral exploration are widely accepted – what are the hurdles?
A: As always the biggest hurdle is people’s resistance to change. The digitisation of minerals exploration represents a real change to the way geologists do their jobs and indeed the sorts of skills they need to have, this can make people nervous. I actually think it is exciting! The evolving technologies will reduce time spent collecting data and will allow greater time for doing the interpretive ‘fun’ part of the job.
There are some logistical hurdles too. The first of these is that the end-to-end digital solution that geologists needs spans across multiple sensor suppliers, database providers and interpretative software companies. Collaboration between these groups is required to deliver the solution.
Communications also remains a challenge. Exploration is predominately a remote activity and communications can be poor impeding the flow of data. I have great optimism, however, that this challenge will be resolved. Look at things like the Loon Balloons – this is a fast moving space that we could take advantage of.
Q: What could our industry do as a whole to realise the benefits of digital technology?
A: Embrace change! The industry is facing a productivity crisis; we can’t expect exploration to be funded at this level of inefficiency. We need to disrupt ourselves before somebody disrupts us.
Q: Are there any future developments that you think will have an impact on our industry?
A: We are currently working as part of the group putting together the MinexCRC bid – a new CRC into Minerals Exploration. One of the big trends we have been discussing is automation of the drilling process. There are always exciting new developments in the pipeline.