Editorial focus by Harold Hough

Anyone who thinks mining is a low tech business is misinformed. Today’s modern mining operation has more computer processing capability on-site than the average start-up Silicon Valley computer company does. Then there are companies like Modular Mining, which dwarf the average Silicon Valley computer company, but thrive by providing high tech computer solutions to the mining industry.

The computer revolution has profoundly affected the mining industry. Computers are part of every sector of the industry, from the software that designs new heavy equipment to the computers in engines that keep providing a steady stream of telemetry back to the maintenance department.

The computer revolution and heavy equipment manufacturers like Caterpillar have given the industry robotic mining equipment, while Silicon Valley is still playing with robotic vacuum cleaners. Caterpillar manufactures MineGem underground robotic miners. The Caterpillar system uses computers and lasers to allow underground mining equipment to move from loading to dumping areas without a driver. While traveling through the tunnels, the equipment is kept on track with lasers that make sure the equipment doesn’t run into the wall.

This automation is also improving safety. In Nevada, Newmont has expanded its mining to lower grade deposits. However, it has found itself working around older operations that mined the high grade gold ore and then moved on – often leaving miles of dangerous underground tunnels. Experts estimate that the Nevada contains some 300,000 abandoned mines, 50,000 of which are classified as potential public hazards. This is where remote controlled heavy equipment comes in.

Underground tunnels pose more than a sinkhole problem for heavy equipment. A dozer working on a slight slope may cause a void to collapse, causing a slight slope to become a dangerous incline – causing the equipment to tip over or even tumble down the slope in a landslide.

Once again, the mining industry and heavy equipment manufacturers led the way. While Silicon Valley is currently focused on products like Anybots that allow your remotely controlled robot to go to meetings half a world away, the mining industry had already pioneered a way to handle heavy equipment remotely.

The answer for Newmont and other mines is a simple add-on developed by Caterpillar. It’s called Command and it can be purchased with new Cat equipment or added on. The controls are portable and are easily carried by an operator as they move around the site. The equipment can also be used in environments that might easily tire an operator or pose other environmental risks.

Unlike totally automated equipment, which is becoming more common around mine sites, Command is a remote controlled device that is controlled by the equipment operator within sight of the equipment. Since the controls are just like those on the dozer, a heavy equipment operator familiar with dozer operations can quickly learn how to use them.

If an unstable area needs work, the operator can move the equipment to the site and then carry out the job from a safe location with Command. There are also several automatic shutoffs in the system is the equipment loses contact with the remote control device, the operator trips and falls down, or an emergency shutoff switch is activated on the cab, remote console, or mine control center.

A less exciting, but more common use of computers is one that tracks the location of equipment, monitors the condition of the equipment, and gives the operator updates as necessary. Heavy equipment manufacturers offer such systems, and there are currently thousands of pieces of equipment that use these systems to increase the productivity of their operations. Other subsystems like tire condition monitors are offered by other companies that can interface with these systems.

Computers are critical in maximizing the mine’s operation. Modular Mining’s IntelliMine helps the mine’s management optimize the haul cycle, while monitoring the equipment and helping schedule maintenance. By carefully monitoring telemetry from the equipment, they can also detect equipment problems before they even breakdown.

Even the design of equipment has been radically changed thanks to computers. Caterpillar uses computers to maximize their equipment design. With it, Cat can determine the probable stress points even before the first prototype is built. In fact, with it, they can custom design a truck body that will enhance performance at your specific mine, while maximizing durability. This allows management to better enhance mine efficiency at the lowest cost.

While some may think mining is just picks and shovels, mining has evolved into a high technology industry that leads the economy in high tech applications. In many cases, high tech computer solutions have come out of the mining industry long before the “wiz kids” of Silicon Valley ever knew there was a problem, much less a computer solution.