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Mining is one of the oldest industries in the world. It followed soon after humankind discovered fire, and thereafter we started extracting the sparkly bits in the caves we called home. Since then not much has changed in how resources are taken from the ground. Only the tools have evolved.

Things must change and they will, very soon. Innovation is the cornerstone of this crucial shape-shift. Innovation is more than just a strategic advantage; it is a lifeline. The challenges we face today are unprecedented, from mitigating environmental impact and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our workers to the efficient and ethical use of resources. Technology and the development of innovative solutions and processes in mining have the potential to redefine what’s possible in the mining sector.

Innovation can step in to answer the call for more sustainable mining, for the development, empowerment and nurturing of human capital and, importantly, also the delivery of economic benefit across the value chain. For SA, with a strong history and present-day narrative in mining, we also have a bright future that will remain closely tied to the industry. But to achieve new heights the old dog must learn a few new tricks, because the world is rapidly changing.

The future of mining is not just about responding to change, it’s about leading it. With a touch of vision and imagination the boundaries of what’s possible continually expand. Envisioning this future requires looking at the familiar in unfamiliar ways, discovering potential where none seemed to exist.

The internet of things holds significant potential as a catalyst for change in mining. It can enhance operational efficiencies simply through real-time analysis of operational equipment and tools. By using sensors to monitor every aspect of the production line, every step can be optimised immediately.

In addition, real-time safety monitoring enhances employee security for possible hazardous incidents or conditions. It also becomes possible to manage energy efficiency to the second, consequently creating efficiencies, savings and, importantly, environmentally friendly outcomes.

Blockchain technology can transform the way miners do business too. It’s not simply a cryptocurrency universe, but rather a gateway to exploring better ways of transacting. It can aid significantly in combating illegal trade, as each gram of mineral resource can be tracked on the blockchain, from unearthing through to beneficiation and product. And it’s all visible, all the time.

Smart contracts — self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement captured in code — can be used to automate transactions and agreements between different parties, whether a supplier or buyer, and could increase efficiencies dramatically. Suppliers and buyers could engage in blockchain contracts like these, while other significant applications could include royalty payments or managing supply chains.

Smart contracts could be linked to devices on the internet of things to trigger various aspects of contracts, ensure automated compliance and amend or auto-adjust terms where necessary. The possibilities are endless, and the tamper-proof nature of the blockchain adds a healthy measure of data security, reliability and integrity to the mix.

Plugged into the internet of things and blockchain technology is artificial intelligence (AI). It is in a sense the glue that can bind together technological innovation in mining. AI can process vast amounts of data and translate it into predictive outcomes such as forecasting market demand all the way through to the optimisation of mining activities and the prediction of equipment failures, for example.

Robotics can facilitate a measure of automation, machines operating in hazardous environments, improving safety and optimising efficiencies with maximum yields set as the objective, paired with minimum waste principles.

Imagine AI automated mining that can save lives and minimise environmental impact, tied to the internet of things for optimisation of machinery and process, monitored and pre-empted at every step of the production cycle. All this tied to tracing the origin  of every gram of mineral produced, contracts triggered or monitored for environmental impact and benefit based on the performance of AI and devices, real-time forecasts and production based on performance. 

The possibilities are endless, the outcomes positive across every core aspect critical to the future of mining. Transparency, people, the environment and, of course, profit. And it does not mean machines and binary code will replace humans. In fact, the contrary holds true, because with new technology comes demand for new skills, for shaping the professional development of everyone from miners to executives to make the most of what technologically driven business affords.

That means more opportunities to go around and ultimately to deliver a collective benefit in a safer, more environmentally kind milieu.

• Nelson is CEO of Northern Cape copper miner Copper 360.

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