How Digitisation Can Make Mining Safer

Jon Lawson

In January 2019, the Brumadinho tailings dam disaster in Brazil shone fresh light on an industry challenge that many on the outside had forewarned, but few on the inside had responded to. Now, with the cliché of ‘health and safety’ ramped up to a literal matter of life and death, the global mining sector is finally taking necessary steps.

As an industry renowned for slow movement when it comes to progression or overhaul, this particular transition has called for operators to ditch another stereotype: the (now dangerous) reluctance to embrace new technologies.

How Digitisation Can Make Mining Safer

One particular tech facilitator based in the UK, Inmarsat, has long discussed the role that digitisation can play in making mining operations safer, more accurate and high performing. The satellite communications provider launched its own tailings monitoring solution in March 2019 and has been actively engaging with mining companies, auditors and industry bodies since then.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of effort put into improving health and safety for staff in the mining sector, as part of an industry commitment to ‘Zero Harm’, and the next step has to be improving our tailings dam monitoring,” introduces Inmarsat Enterprise’s director of Mining Innovation, Joe Carr. “With new technologies emerging that promise to revolutionise the industry’s approach to tailings management, mining companies are now able to have a centralised, real-time and reliable view of the status of their tailings facilities.”

The Brumadinho Failure

Carr looks back at Brumadinho itself with caution, acknowledging that the cause of the failure still hasn’t been officially communicated. However, he does reflect that the dam in question was constructed using an upstream method that has since been banned in Brazil and Chile.

“The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates there to be up to 35,000 dams globally at present, so it is reasonable to assume a decent portion of these dams may have been made using the upstream method too,” he continues, as evidence of the task at hand. “To this end, and in response, we expect to see more and more mining companies moving away from labour-intensive, manual monitoring processes that are at risk of human error, in favour of an automated, data-rich, and safety-first methodology that delivers a global, unified view of tailings dam integrity to all stakeholders.”A constant, real-time view of conditions

The reverberations that Brumadinho sent across the global industry reached the very top; even BHP’s CEO, Ken MacKenzie, was highlighting the agenda soon after the incident.

“We have to acknowledge the deficiencies in the scientific and technical understanding,” he said back in February. ““You need to think about [tailings dams] with the best possible science and engineering in the world. It has to have a nuclear level of safety now.”

The Need For Global Level Regulation

It seems Carr’s call for an approach that is regulated at global level is finally being echoed by decision-makers.

“We are seeing a significant response from the industry,” he affirms. “From the conversations we are having with mining companies, we know that the topic is being prioritised in the boardroom. Historically, most companies have not had a centralised tailings monitoring standard. Most sites within companies will differ in terms of what they are doing and the way they do it.

“However, we are now seeing companies looking for technical solutions to underpin a consistent global approach to tailings management.”

In Brazil and Chile, real-time instrument monitoring standards are already being discussed, while many regulators, NGOs and industry bodies are also focused on improving their guidance for tailings monitoring.

As such, 2020 looks to be a year of tangible – digital – transformation.

The Role Of Digital Transformation

“Many mining companies have relied on manual processes to collect data from their tailings dams in the past, using either handheld instruments or simple sensors connected to data loggers on site,” Carr explains. “These processes are expensive, time-consuming and susceptible to human error, and result in a fragmented and siloed approach to tailings management that leaves mining companies struggling to access, understand and make use of their data.

“To combat this, Internet of Things (IoT)-based solutions are set to play a huge role in improving monitoring and management levels, both at existing sites to enhance current infrastructure, and in deployment at future dams to bring them into line with best practice standards.”

Inmarsat’s own solution gathers data from a wide range of sensors installed at a dam, such as piezometers and inclinometers, which are connected via LoRaWAN to a global satellite network. The data is then fed back to a cloud-based dashboard for analysis by staff in control centres.

“With this solution, mining companies can have a constant, real-time view of conditions at their tailings dams on a global basis, allowing them to manage their estates more effectively,” Carr adds. “They can also share data with regulators and government agencies, dramatically improving compliance and bringing greater transparency to tailings dam monitoring.”

Changing Industry Attitudes

In an ideal world, Carr would love the industry to be overseen by a global industry regulator, which takes geographies, politics, terrains or – essentially – excuses, out of the equation. However, with the patchwork existence that the global mining sector currently lives in, a more realistic progression is a series of national regulators, industry bodies and ethical investors leading the charge in each locality, and increasingly collaborating.

Canada and Australia have always been ‘role models’ when it comes to developing progressive mining practices, with many countries following their guidance. Recently, Instituto Brasileiro de Mineração (IBRAM), the national mining association of Brazil, announced it would adopt the CSR-driven Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative; while Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) and Mets Ignited, industry bodies from Canada and Australia respectively, have agreed to work more closely with each other, with one focus area being “tailings and waste management technologies that improve environmental performance”.

“We’ve definitely witnessed a change in attitude. At Inmarsat, we have seen a very positive reaction to our tailings dam monitoring solution, not only from mining businesses, but also from regulators, insurance companies and investors, who all have a stake in ensuring that the industry improves the effectiveness and transparency of how

it monitors tailings dams,” Carr says.“In Brumadinho’s region, we recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Minas Gerais State Government to explore how we could work together to improve the transparency of monitoring tailings dams and enhance their governance.

“We are also in discussion with a number of stakeholders in the mining sector regarding the deployment of our tailings dam solution across their infrastructure in multiple markets.”

Not only is this a reflection of technology’s evolving role in the mining arena, but vitally it’s also reflective of the increasing importance of tailings dams and how important it is to monitor them in a more effective manner.

A few years ago, tailings dams were near the bottom of the agenda, but out of tragedy some positivity has arose.

“Now, tailings dams are the first topic that mining CEOs want to discuss,” Carr concludes. “It comes from a recognition that mining businesses need to hold up their end of the ‘social contract’; showcasing blatantly that social responsibility is at the heart of their operations.

“By using digital solutions such as IoT to monitor and manage their tailings facilities, they can demonstrate to investors, local communities and society more broadly that they are responsible businesses and that they are using all the tools available to them to proactively – rather than reactively – ensure the safety of their infrastructure. “It’s very clear to the industry that a social licence to operate is essential, and unless companies can maintain trust, they may struggle to build new sites and develop new projects in the future.”

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