The Internet of Things (IoT) is increasing the connectedness of people and things on a scale that once was unimaginable. One industry at the forefront of this revolution is mining.

The magnitude of the IoT’s evolution is momentous, with more than 80bn internet-connected devices projected to be in use in 2024, up from fewer than 20bn in 2014. When we then couple the data produced, and processes involved in the interaction among things and with people, what results is a powerful model upon which to drive the digitisation and transformation of companies, industries and whole nations.

The ability to use standard internet technologies throughout an enterprise, right down to individual field devices, enables new levels of connectivity for people, processes, data and things, ultimately providing greater productivity, better utilisation of assets, and improved decision-making to industrial companies.

“The IoT is connecting people in more relevant, valuable, and meaningful ways, delivering the right information to the right person or machine in real time,” says Michael Boland, Distinguished Systems Engineer at Cisco. “Data is being leveraged in more useful ways for better decision-making. It has applicability across all markets, the private sector and governments.”

The mining industry has a lot to gain from the connectivity that the IoT delivers. Mining operations around the world are on an automation curve, applying technologies processes to automate their key functions to gain efficiencies in production. However these initiatives are often focused and restricted within production silos.

“We see a significant number of mines that have data locked away in individual systems but now want to federate that data together, instigate new processes, involving their people in new ways to achieve better outcomes,” says Boland. “Mining generates big data because the number of sensors are growing rapidly and systems involved are becoming more intelligent. The challenge ahead is to federate that data to gain insight and optimise operations.”

Productivity and safety are two key drivers. Removing people from the mine site and into remote operating centres helps companies achieve both these objectives. By leveraging IoT technologies, the interaction between people, process, data and things can be securely and reliably monitored, modified and maintained remotely.

Making big data meaningful

“The next big boom in mining is going to be connecting a lot more ‘things’,” says Boland. “There are going to be more wireless and mobile devices that will be able to be instrumented, sensed and controlled more effectively.”

This results in a lot of data being generated that needs to be analysed to generate useful information. Data needs to be intelligently captured, correlated and analysed to optimise production systems. It also needs to be available as useful information in real time so the mine’s remote operating centre can modify processes, asset utilisation and maintenance to optimise production rates in relation to dynamic market demands. Through IoT, this next level of optimisation can be achieved for a single mine or a federation of mines, rail and ports. IoT enables the digitisation of the entire mining supply chain for optimisation.

The complete mining operation, from pit to port, involves many functions with many specialist devices and equipment. Centralising control allows mining operations to pool resources to optimise production and reduce costs.

“The other trend here is that we are arriving at a point where, instead of doing everything ourselves, we are starting to contract out particular roles that require specialist expertise provided it makes commercial and economic sense, and the miner is in full control,” explains Boland. “However, it is becoming apparent that mining systems that have been implemented to date have not been designed for this concept of integrated but outsourced services.

We need to have these roles inside the integrated operations systems, yet others may actually perform them in a secure and controlled way. Through well designed IoT infrastructure, the ability for remote experts to analyse information and real time systems securely from a plant and interact with local staff can be achieved.”

The next wave of productivity

The IoT is taking the world by storm and opening new and exciting possibilities to businesses, government and industries. The mining sector also has much to gain from the benefits that IoT can provide, particularly in light of the current market challenges.

Through IoT, mining operations can save energy, downtime and costs associated with production and transportation of resources. Remote operations remove people from potentially hazardous situations, improving safety and productivity. The IoT provides the platform for the integration and optimisation of the entire mining supply chain.

“On a national scale, for Australia, the benefits that the IoT can deliver are most important because as a country we are not going to win on efficiency gains based on cheaper labour to drive down costs,” says Boland. “We are going to use our expertise and knowledge of mining and automation systems to continually improve the most efficient and cost effective mining capability in the world.”

Rockwell Automation and Cisco have developed a unique value proposition for mining customers to help bridge the gap between mining operations and business systems through network and security products, Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) reference architectures, training courses, services and solutions.

“By developing reference architectures for mining we are reducing risk for our customers,” explains Boland. “We are developing full guides on how to facilitate convergence of information technology and operational technology so that our customers do not have to do all the heavy lifting and have all the expertise themselves, yet still inherit the capabilities for safe, compliant and sustainable operations and performance.

“We are unique in that we develop solutions that leverage our expertise in operational technology, through the Rockwell Automation offering, and then combine this with the deep networking, datacentre and security capabilities of Cisco.”

Connections above and below ground

A mine in Canada has established a new technology benchmark for future mines by applying IoT technologies throughout the site. A detailed evaluation process recognised that the Rockwell Automation and Cisco offering was capable of delivering the complete integrated solution. The central operations centre utilises IoT technologies and combines systems monitoring and control with remote equipment control and tracking.

The mine deployed the latest advances in controls and communications, including comprehensive Wi-Fi communications for surface and underground phone, data, asset and personnel tracking; and a Radio Frequency Identification-based wireless tracking system, used to create ‘ventilation-on-demand’ underground.

Combining operational technology with networking and security capabilities provided the inherent flexibility for the mine to adapt to changing requirements in real time for enhanced optimisation and efficiency.

According to Geoff Irvine, Mining Industry Manager at Rockwell Automation, “using standard Ethernet components really adds significant value in being able to combine control, safety, voice over IP, video, people tracking and also applications such as ventilation on demand”. IoT technologies provide the capability to integrate and analyse data from various processes such as remote sensing of objects and the environment, images from cameras deployed for monitoring and maintenance, scheduling preventative maintenance procedures and monitoring power usage.

“Together with Cisco we help customers leverage technology to better gather and analyse data, and transform it into actionable, real time insightful information,” adds Irvine. “By converging information technology (IT) with operational technology (OT) into a single unified architecture, mines can benefit from establishing a ‘Connected Enterprise’ and leveraging the power of this information to optimise operations and take their productivity to the next level.”