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October 19, 2015
Future of Mining: The self-aware mine
By: Lee Rose

What if every component of a rail car loader could talk to every other component of the loader? What if every component of a train could talk to every other component of the train? And then what if every component of the loader could talk to every component of the train?

Could the loader determine the exact amount of ore to load onto the train? Could the loader and train discuss where the areas of optimization are and make the adjustments themselves? Could the train warn the loader that it was about to have a problem, and talk to other trains to find the best replacement? All with no human intervention, no operations center?

In this scenario, the mine has moved beyond the Internet of Things, where sensors installed on mining equipment send data to an operations center staffed by humans. The mine is now self-aware, leveraging “smart dust” in and on the mining equipment to let that equipment discuss what to do and how. This scenario may be several years in the future, but it is by no means far-fetched.

Smart dust is a grouping of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), called motes, which are typically less than a millimeter in size, with some as small as 0.02 millimeter. Each mote basically contains a microprocessor for executing control logic and signal processing, and microsensors that can detect temperature, humidity, vibration, chemicals and other environmental conditions, as well as location.

Motes can be powered by a battery or via solar cells, and they can communicate with one another by optical communication or radio frequency to form autonomous networks. The operating system and software is designed not to execute process-intensive algorithms, but rather to execute short pieces of code for a specific purpose.

In a mine, these motes could offer economical proliferation and minimal interference with their surroundings, due to their size. They could process data internally and talk sparingly to other motes to make decisions. Thus, the various pieces of mining equipment would become autonomous--operating themselves, governing themselves and making decisions themselves.

In our scenario, the smart dust on the train and the loader could geometrically orientate to one another in order to assess and control loading. Motes might even detect fluctuations and structural deviations in the rails and wheels to identify measurements beyond the design thresholds of the equipment in order to predict failure. Or, motes on a front-end loader could read the temperature of the engine and the environment, their position in three-dimensional space relative to a haul truck and to the load,  the speed of the vehicle, environmental conditions like wind and humidity, and so forth.

The motes’ communication range is limited to a few meters, so in our scenario each mote would communicate with the motes in close proximity, and so on and so on until the smart dust as a whole has a comprehensive view of the physical terrain or equipment it is covering. The smart dust would send data from one mote to another until it reaches a router, which would send the data to the control systems of the loader or train.

As part of proactive monitoring and disaster prevention, the smart dust could be sprinkled over hazardous areas of the mine to report back all environmental conditions that can affect safety, pollution and so forth. It could detect small ground movements, seismic anomalies including fluctuations in the magnetic field of the ground and earth, plot trends that normal sensors may fail to read, and warn of an impending disaster.

The potential benefits of smart dust stretch the imagination. But there are clear, tangible benefits that we can articulate now: The increased productivity from real-time responses to conditions. Reduced cost of solutions and infrastructure offsite. And better stock control as smart dust monitors actual equipment and components at the mine, and communicates equipment failure proactively. The mine would know exactly what is there and the status of each item—and heal itself.

Many complex questions still need to be addressed. These questions span business, technology, security, social, legal and many more areas. But there is little doubt that smart dust will change the world we live in, and the “self-aware mine” will be part of it.

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