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The future of robotics in mining [Opinion]

The mining sector has faced significant hurdles over the past few years. From a global pandemic that halted and redefined mining operations and safety, to increased costs, depleting resources, and mercurial market demands, the sector is under pressure on multiple sides.

It also has to deftly manage the complexities of hazardous environments, data management, safety, and operational security. This is one sector that has had to find inventive ways of overcoming complex challenges to ensure sustainable growth and financial security.

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Which is why it has led the way when it comes to technology innovation and adoption, particularly in Africa.

The continent, rich in minerals and resources and with a thriving mining sector, has often been perceived as lagging behind the rest of the world, always playing catch-up. With the adoption of new-generation Wi-Fi and 5G and other low-cost connectivity solutions, the sector is rapidly connecting assets and individuals and is ready to leapfrog into a space where it can compete with the most developed mining nations in the world.

Already, mining companies are rolling out automation systems and robotics platforms that are powered by locally developed solutions.

This is not the time to underestimate Africa, not just as a territory where companies can tap into its impressive resources, but for those that are developing solutions that will put mining operations on a globally competitive stage. Already, Africa is taking steps towards a digitally-empowered mining future with many companies leading the way in terms of innovation and inventive approaches.

In South Africa, a report by PwC and the Mining Council of South Africa found that the mining sector is taking firm hold of innovative and cutting-edge technologies to improve operational efficiencies, reduce risk, manage safety and cut costs.

This is echoed by Deloitte in their 2021 Mining Trends Report. The firm believes that technology and data are key to improving decision making and embedding long-term cost reductions.

Looking ahead to the future of the sector, robotics and intelligent solutions are taking centre stage when it comes to innovation and investment, for mining industry and technology solutions provider alike.

The technology space is rapidly changing and evolving with robotics and intelligent automation becoming increasingly viable as tools designed to augment human effort, mitigating risk while maximising productivity. This balance between the human and the machine is fast becoming the most effective way to drive improved outcomes and overall operational security and efficiency.

As machines continue to learn from humans, and humans learn how to extend and optimise the potential of these machines, the outcomes will become safer and more efficient. As the sector continues to invest into the building blocks of digitalisation and connectivity, robotics will continue to evolve and adapt to industry demands and technology capabilities.

Using Spot the Robot Dog in Mining

However, this is not a simple process. Truly intuitive and intelligent robotics requires extensive investment and research to ensure that even the most basic of interactions are seamless and reliable.

Spot the Robot Dog by Boston Dynamics is an example of exactly how much work goes into ensuring that the robot can perform simple tasks before it can be released to market. The robot went through several years of testing and assessments before it was released into the market in 2020, and even its creators are still racking up the range of use cases – it’s that versatile.

In the mining industry, for example, Spot has already demonstrated its capabilities in collecting data, performing hazardous or remote inspections, and showcasing opportunities for being a first responder rescue solution from dangerous environments. The agile robot can reduce inspection time, improve visibility, and be used to proactively manage site maintenance from remote locations.

With time studies and trials planned to demonstrate its value in performing tasks pre- and post-blasting, routine inspections with a variety of partner payloads or accessing hazardous environments and unsupported underground mining areas – the robot can be used to enter these areas, assess the risks, collect the data for operators to make proactive risk-mitigating decisions.

As one of the most advanced robotics solutions on the market today, Spot the Robot Dog is a prime example of how technology and automation can provide the mining sector with futuristic capabilities, and November sees its official launch as a mining technology tool in South Africa.

With partner payloads rapidly pivoting to participate and aligned industries looking to adopt mining companies’ progressive digital investments, the launch of Deep-Tech Solutions is an exciting development that will stimulate non-mining applications for heavy industrial clients looking to achieve these efficiencies in their own, often unique operations.

This level of tech investment and innovation not only allows for shifts in operational planning and thinking, but it also opens up new opportunities for the local sector for employment roles previously unimagined.

Companies that focus on digitalisation and connectivity, and link these to robotics, automation and skills development, are sitting on the very edge of the future.

They are the ones most likely to refine processes, attract and retain talent, improve cost parameters, reduce risk, and ensure the long-term sustainability of their investments.

Africa isn’t behind, it’s right there on the edge, ready with the support of global partners to deploy a digital workforce that elevates our homegrown talent.

This article is written by Jamie van Schoor, Managing Director of Dwyka Mining Services 

Feature image: Tom Fisk/Pexels

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