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April 2016

Robots Mining Future

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For the last few years there has been a quiet revolution going on in agriculture. One that may give clues as to what is about to happen in mining. Robots have arrived and they are changing everything!

Since mechanisation brought on by the industrial revolution, we have seen bigger fields handled by bigger machines in agriculture. It is all about economies of scale – a continuous march to dilute labour. Sound familiar? In the same time period, mines have grown in size and the equipment we use to extract resources have gotten bigger too.

Take a look at some Australian robot technology being developed for agriculture:

Robots are changing the rules of that game. There is no labour to dilute. If the numerator goes to zero it doesn’t matter how big the denominator becomes – it’s still zero.

So what do the rules in mining look like in the robot world? Well instead of big, fast and few, it will be small, slow and many (swarming).

Small allows the automated machine to be highly selective and react to small changes, instead of dealing with averages. This maximises the grade quality and minimises wasted time and energy.

Slow means that the robot can be low cost in terms of upfront capex and ongoing maintenance.

Many is because each unit is far more affordable and we compensate for the slower speed by going parallel. We might see a similar output volume as a few, large machines, but with much higher grade and lower costs, therefore improving profitability.

This brave new future for mining is coming sooner than we think. In fact, we have already seen precursors to the revolution in the form of drones, automated trains and self-driven trucks on mine sites. The real question is, how will the truly enormous amounts of data created to fuel these systems be managed by mere humans? That’s what we’re working on here at GlassTerra.

Till next time,


Learnings from running an online competition to solve a mining problem

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I’ve been asked on many occasions about what we have learned from running an online competition last year. Today, I finally got around to writing this blog so the learnings are written down and passed on.

For those who have not come across it, late last year, GlassTerra teamed up with Unearthed to run an online competition for Goldfields. The goal of the competition was to find a way of turning photographs of the face in a drive into a grade estimate. For Goldfields, the competition was a chance to solve a small problem which was not economically viable if trying to solve in traditional ways but would drive an incremental productivity gain if solved. For Unearthed, it was a chance to extend their product offering; and for GlassTerra, it was a chance to show the capabilities of our new technology to the world.

The competition delivered a success for everyone, but as with all things you do for the first time, we made mistakes and learned a few things on the way. So here it is:

1. When is an online challenge a good mechanism to procure innovation?

When you are trying to find the how but not the what.

  • The answer is an algorithm.
  • The algorithm should it be found will deliver a short payback period.
  • The real world data upon which the algorithm is to operate already exists.
  • End users want the result right away.
  • It is easy to determine if the algorithm is giving a good answer.

2. What are the must haves in terms of running the competition?

Say it loud, say it simple, say it often.

  • Partner with industry and get them to shout out on their email lists and use publicity if you can.
  • Make the reward exciting – money, reputation, ability to create a new start-up, mastery, bragging rights.
  • Don’t ask to own the IP as this will turn away many potential contestants.
  • Explain the problem “like I’m five” if you want to get more people involved from outside the industry. No one else really understands our jargon.  
  • Show pictures and visuals. The majority of mining problems have spatial component, so show it.
  • When you have a winner, deploy the result in some minimal way to the end users straight away. Capitalise on the high.

It is great to see that Unearthed now has another competition underway and this time it is for BHP Billiton.  You will find GlassTerra there presenting the input data in full 3D.  Good luck to everyone who has a go at it.

Till next time,