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Miners lagging in innovation

The mining industry is one of the slowest to adopt new technologies, according to Paul Lucey, CEO of mining technology firm Mine Vision Systems.

"The uptake of new technologies in mining is 15 years," Lucey, who was previously the head of technology and innovation for Gold Fields Ltd., told SNL Metals & Mining. "It's the slowest out of just about any industry that's out there."

The reason for the lag, according to Lucey, is the boom-bust cycle.

"If you look at the automotive industry, when things are tough typically the automotive industry becomes very, very innovative in reducing cost and bringing out new models," he said.

"But in mining … when things are tight all you do is just sack everyone and you turn the mine off and you wait for the price to pick up and you turn it back on," he said. "There is no incentive to try and innovate and find new ways to mine at lower prices."

Mine Vision Systems is trying to break this paradigm by creating a multipurpose product that is designed to work with existing mining equipment and software instead of competing with it.

For the past eight years, Lucey has been working with Gold Fields as well as several software providers and original equipment manufacturers to road-test new technologies designed to improve the efficiency of mines.

"We decided not to create a stand-alone package and instead we approached all the [original equipment manufacturers] and all the software providers and said 'we're not going to compete with you, what we're going to do is provide a middle-ware layer, which means that it'll work out of the box with your prospective software to the end customer,'" he said.

"So the end customer might not even necessarily be aware that the [company's] algorithms are working on their behalf."

According to Lucey, mines could be 30% more operationally efficient if digital technologies were introduced into daily business practices.

Mine Vision Systems will soon be rolling out rapid mapping tools designed to speed up and improve the accuracy of data collection.

The technology has already been trialed at a number of mine sites owned by Gold Fields and Newcrest Mining Ltd. as well as at Hancock Prospecting Pty. Ltd.'s Roy Hill mine in Western Australia.

Essentially, the technology allows a mine to be mapped in just a few hours as opposed to several months using traditional methods.

"This is not a new notion for the industry as rapid mapping tools have been trialed by mining companies for more than a decade, however, we are just starting to see products on the market that are commercially viable," Lucey said.

"In some cases, we were able to collect the same amount of data in a few hours that conventional process would take six months to complete."

The project came about as a result of the inefficiency of the automation programs in the overall mining process.

"We found that all the auxiliary tasks that you do with mining involving technical specialists — surveyors, geologists, geotechs, mining engineers — stop the automation process from being effective, and so this tool was developed over that period of time to create these specialized skills," Lucey said.

The initial product due for release is the "virtual geotech," which is designed to effectively replicate a geotech working underground. This will be followed by a virtual geologist and virtual surveyor.

"It will gather more data, more information and make those decisions faster than the real thing in that respect," Lucey said.

Mine Vision Systems plans to do three limited rollouts of the technology ahead of the commercial release at the end of November.