January 20, 2018

From software to drones, mining consultants embrace technology to add value


From game-changing innovations like remote sensing using photogrammetric methods including the use of drones in open pits – to under-the-radar tools like niche software that drives ground-breaking scientific approaches, consultancies are drawing on a range of powerful technologies to help drive efficiencies in the African mining sector.

Many highly specialised software packages have for some time been effectively utilised by engineering consultants. But as mining companies cut back their technical capacity in response to the market slump, consultants are finding themselves taking on more of the specialised and strategic work – which requires increasingly hi-tech computer programs and related equipment.

The expertise required to use this technology, as well as its high cost relative to its usage, puts it out of reach of the average mining operation, whose personnel must in any event focus more on day-to-day implementation issues.

Advanced algorithms imbedded in these products give experienced engineers and scientists at SRK the capacity to conduct advanced analyses on various technical aspects of a mine’s operation – from geostatistics to rock mechanics. This provides the foundation upon which valuable scenarios can be generated to illustrate the impact of changing variables over the life of a mine.

These scenarios improve the quality of high-level decisions that need to be made regarding technical factors such as mining rates, geotechnical designs and grade control systems by quantifying their respective effects on bottom-line imperatives like net present values and internal rates of return.

SRK believes the ongoing success of any operation depends on how well it navigates the changing geological, mining and other factors as the initial mining plan is adapted to actual conditions. This journey in turn depends on the quality of your data, how well you process it, and how accurately it is interpreted.

A relatively new – but potentially game-changing – addition to the technological arsenal has been the UAV; armed with a high-definition camera, programmed drones are showing they can take photogrammetry to another level. While the science of using photography to survey measurements between objects is well-developed, drones are allowing better visual angles and higher quality data to be captured in opencast environments; and with more detailed data comes the requirement for faster and more intelligent processing capacity, so the software is constantly improving.

Harnessing this technology in a multi-disciplinary consultancy of experts like SRK is what gives it heightened value as the interpretation of data – applying its significance to real situations – is what underpins its role. Also, the ability to integrate a range of data sets across our various technical competencies sets the firm apart from most consulting engineers and scientists in the mining sector.

Analysing risk is an important area benefiting from the vital combination of experience and digital technology; in a recent study on rock fall hazards, factors such as boulder source areas, boulder potential energy, slope angle and terrain vegetation were evaluated by SRK using geographic information system (GIS) techniques. The rock fall trajectories were assessed with a specialised rock fall simulation package that integrates the boulder geometry, boulder energy and three-dimensional slope terrain.

Computing power also allows SRK to apply new approaches to risk management, with its growing capacity to process vast amounts of complex data. For instance, the company has developed a risk-based approach to geotechnical design that considers multiple inputs beyond the conventional rock mass variability in calculating probabilities and furthering the interpretation by determining consequences associated to designs.

By balancing the safety and economic consequences of mineral extraction, this approach to design and analysis can help mining companies improve efficiencies in the current market for commodities.

Results of on-going technological developments in software and data collection are certain to make mining safer and more cost-effective both locally in South Africa and the African continent.

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