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Connected, safe, intelligent – mining in the modern age

An aerial shot of mining activity

Technology is making mining a safer sector. Image: Shane McLendon on Unsplash

Zou Zhilei
President, Latin America, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd
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Tech and Innovation

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • Mining was once a dangerous and dirty industry to work in.
  • The latest technology is making mines safer and more productive.
  • Digitalising the mining industry involves seven steps.

The days of mines as dirty and dangerous workplaces are ending. Digital technologies are empowering the mining industry to become cleaner and safer for workers. Technological change chimes in with a transition in the underlying logic of mining. Formerly, the major way to increase mining output was to add sites and staff. In light of price volatility, shortages in talent and other hurdles, the industry is now transitioning from this method to one of intensifying the use of existing sites instead.

China is a prime example of this transition. Here, the digital economy is now intertwined with the real economy. This helps to combine the country’s strengths, from raw materials sourcing to industrial production to digital applications. Situated at the beginning of any product lifecycle, the mining sector occupies a uniquely important spot in China’s economic development.


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Unified standards are the bedrock of success

While the richest sources of minerals exist in remote areas, the mines must be connected seamlessly across the whole supply chain. Unified standards enable seamless exchanges of information on high-performance telecommunications infrastructure.

Combining data and insights across steps in the supply chain, and eventually across industries, unlocks the value of data and enables new business cases. In China’s northwestern province of Shaanxi, for example, thousands of sets of production equipment underground are now connected, producing millions of data entries daily.

Hence, a broad alliance of industry, regulators and academia drives the adoption of unified standards. Beyond the immediate business impact, reliance on unified standards reduces the costs and time involved in testing new solutions and helps develop solutions for sustainable production.

Against this backdrop, Huawei and China Energy Group jointly developed MineHarmony OS, a unified operating system for mines. It integrates many individual devices and interfaces into a single system that easily connect to others.

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Seven elements for accelerating the intelligent transformation in mining

The systematic approach to digitalising the mining industry in China and beyond relies on seven building blocks:

1. Real-time, intelligent connectivity

Bringing all devices online begins with connectivity. To generate additional value, all devices must collect and share relevant information gathered through sensors. Actuators enable the use of the resulting insights. Given the requirements of the complex environment in mines, these exchanges of data have to happen in real-time. Hence, the quality of connectivity makes a significant difference on the impact of digitalisation.

Furthermore, the impact of digitalisation depends on a unified operating system with relevant built-in functions supporting the target use cases. With specific mining applications in mind, the MineHarmony OS has been developed to make ‘dumb’ devices ‘intelligent.’

2. Data-driven decision making

In recent years, the value of data in industrial contexts has received significant attention from industry leaders. Increasingly, they recognize data as a new and critical production factor. Data from connected devices can be used to boost efficiency and arrive at data-driven decisions, which would have been impossible without the corresponding analyses and insights.

For mines, which today qualify as data-poor environments, the availability and use of data from connected devices can make a substantial difference in performance and, critically, support the transition from the extensive to the intensive margin paradigm. All the data can be accumulated in a data lake. The insights gained from this consolidated overview can improve issues pertaining to personnel, excavation, transportation, ventilation, water supply and drainage.

3. Software-defined mines

Besides tangible assets, the mining industry has a wealth of intangible assets. Often such intangible assets refer to internalised knowledge and insights. Software-defined devices can integrate such knowledge into the data-driven processes enabled by intelligent connectivity.

Alongside the organizational and business-model transformations, software itself is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Just as autonomous solutions for other contexts continuously evolve, recalibrate and learn, such improvements will seep into the mining use case. This will bring a new wave of efficiency and safety gains as software in mines must be able to cope with complex and changing environments. Hence, we expect the next generation of mining software to build on deep learning and massive data sets. Such software will be able to generate new code, constantly learn and optimise to provide accurate analysis and make optimal decisions.

4. Unified platform support

To unfold its full potential, data needs to flow freely between entities and across sectors. This requires an industrial internet platform, the foundation for connected and intelligent industrial digitalisation.

For mines specifically, the functions of such a platform can be upgraded even further. The Intelligent Mine Industrial Internet uses platform-converged data and models. It provides cloud-native intelligent services. This unified platform aggregates data from many systems and sources and integrates it with related equipment, mechanisms and business models. The results can be widely applied throughout industrial scenarios, such as operations management and device fault diagnosis and maintenance, to improve quality and efficiency, ensure safety and lower energy consumption

5. Data-driven innovations

The data and insights gained from connected devices lay the groundwork for innovative services that otherwise would not have been developed.

For the mining industry, there are three main types of value-added services. The first is based on equipment. Equipment manufacturers can provide intelligent services based on the industrial internet – such as predictive maintenance, spare-part management and lifecycle management – reducing repairs and downtime. The second type of value-added services comes from innovations in the mining business. Mining companies can use ICT to monetise their scenario-specific knowledge and experience by turning them into intelligent systems or applications for other mining companies to use. The third type is intelligent services based on artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. These aim to improve companies’ operational efficiency through intelligent patrol, intelligent monitoring and other similar applications.

6. AI-driven innovations

AI-driven solutions can bring significant improvements to the mining industry. This includes autonomous maintenance robots replacing human workers in dangerous environments.

Most importantly, we can see already that as AI evolves, it will become more accessible since it increasingly supports low- and no-code solutions. Hence, innovative software solutions can eventually be developed and deployed on the spot, even in complex scenarios. Huawei supports this development with a large pre-trained model called Pangu, which has already been applied in Chinese mines.

7. Organization restructuring and collaboration

Technology alone is not enough. Organizations must adapt to digitalisation and make use of data in meaningful ways. This can amount to a greater challenge than implementing the technology in the first place.

Mines in China have already begun the digitalisation journey. At the Hongliulin Mine, workers control equipment remotely while wearing shirts and ties. Risking their lives working long hours underground is a thing of the past.

Hongliulin Mine and Huawei have completed data collection, built a data lake and developed a low-code development digital platform, taking the initial steps towards a mine with digital twins. These efforts have laid the groundwork for an advanced intelligent mine in the future.

Since its formation, Huawei Mine Team has committed to "finding the right technologies for the industry," not only from Huawei but also from the wider industry. Based on the ICT platform and an open ecosystem for collaborating on intelligent mines, scenario-specific experience, equipment hardware and AI technologies have been brought together to create intelligent capabilities for wider use.

Moving forward, the Mine Team will continue to invest in technological innovations and collaborate with ecosystem partners and research institutions on the open platform, all in pursuit of the shared vision of building intelligent mines. The Team will also share Huawei's technological expertise and work alongside industry partners in standardisation, so that unified standards, architecture and data specifications can be readily implemented to unleash the value of the Intelligent Mine Industrial Internet for the benefit of the entire industry.

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