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Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS), one Step Closer to the Mine of the Future

Today, every company involved in raw material extraction strives to work efficiently and effectively. In the article “Smart Mining – Today and Tomorrow” in this issue, smart mining and its implications have already been described and discussed in detail. The central challenge, according to one of the key statements of that article, is the actual implementation of what is understood by Smart Mining, i. e. the “what” and “how” in day to day operations.

The “what” is the question of which technologies are required and best suited for which specific use cases. The “how” is about the integration of the technology into the existing processes of the respective mine. It is important to test the technologies to be used comprehensively in order to be able to evaluate their advantages and disadvantages and thus to enable a better presentation of the use case. Such comprehensive testing of new technologies was carried out within the framework of the recently completed, large-scale EU project Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS)1. The technologies of the project partners used and further developed or demonstrated in the project already had a high technological readiness level (TRL) over the course of the project. In the course of the project, these technologies were tested in underground mining environments and further developed to a higher TRL, up to a TRL of 7 to 8, so that the SIMS project, both in terms of implementation and results, can be concidered as a positive example of application oriented, smart development and testing of new technologies in the mining sector.

This article gives an overview of the SIMS project, with special reference to the technological developments contributed by the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT) of RWTH Aachen University. The AMT was involved in the project as a project partner and played an important role in the technology development in several work packages.

After a brief overview of AMT’s research priorities, the different work packages of the project are briefly outlined and the contributions of the AMT are examined in more detail. The article ends with a summary of the project results with regard to the development work carried out by the AMT within the project.

1 This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 730302

Authors/Autoren: Tobias Wendel M. Sc., Dr.-Ing. Ralph Baltes, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Elisabeth Clausen, Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT), RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany

Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT) at RWTH Aachen University

For many decades, the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT) with its predecessor institutes IMR, BGMR and IBH has been researching new technologies for the automation and digitalization of mining and heavy engineering. Its interest is in the further development of the concept of Industry 4.0, focusing on the area of Mining 4.0, a term coined by the AMT, which aims to link Industry 4.0 with research and development activities in the area of Smart Mining. In order to address Smart Mining, the Institute has launched for the first time in 2015 a biannually conference, the Smart Mining Conference (SMC), which addresses solutions for the areas of Mining of the Future, Mining 4.0 and Smart Mining. Specifically, the Internet of Things (IoT) is to find its way into the mining industry, whereby the focus is primarily on the automation and digitalization of processes in the extraction and processing of primary raw materials. In addition to the relocation of workplaces from potentially dangerous working areas to safer and, above all, more pleasant areas, the realisation of these goals will above all enable more efficient extraction of raw materials and thus improved raw material efficiency as well as higher profitability of the overall processes.

Some key technologies of the AMT were applied and technologically further developed within the Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS) project.

The Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS) project

Fig. 1. Logo of the SIMS project // Bild 1. Logo des Projekts SIMS. Source/Quelle: SIMS-Project

The vision of the project SIMS (Figure 1) was to have a long-term impact on the way new technologies and solutions for the mining industry are tested and demonstrated, and to promote innovation in the mining industry through collaborative research and development activities with a high application focus. This meant close cooperation between mines, companies and universities to achieve the greatest possible success in results and to bring technological developments to product maturity. A further goal of the project was the sustainable increase of safety in mines through an increased degree of digitalization, automation and robotics. To this end, the efficiency of mining operations was to be increased while at the same time reducing the environmental impact of mining emissions. A further vision of the project is the early identification of direct and measurable influencing factors on sustainable mining in order to make existing processes more efficient and safer, as well as the establishment of a continuous improvement system. The project consortium consisted of several well-known European mining companies, universities, mining equipment suppliers and system suppliers. (1)

In order to achieve the ambitious goals, seven work packages with different focal points have been implemented over a period of four years from 2017 to 2020. It should be emphasized that one focus of the SIMS project was clearly on the demonstration of the functionality of technologies that are close to product maturity. Another important aspect of the project was the improvement of communication between the wider population and the extractive industry with the aim of conveying the importance of the extractive industry and thus increasing the social acceptance of mining projects.

These ambitious goals required a strong consortium of top-class partners:

1. Project coordinator:

a. Epiroc Rock Drills AB.

2. Technology provider:

a. ABB AB;
b. Ericsson AB;
c. iGW Europe AB;
d. Mobilaris Mining & Civil Engineering.

3. Mining companies:

a. K+S;
b. Boliden;
c. KGHM Cuprum Research & Development Center;
d. LKAB;
e. Agnico Eagle Finland.

4. Universities:

a. RWTH Aachen University;
b. Luleå University of Technology.

In the following paragraphs, the work packages of the project are outlined and their objectives explained.

Communication and Positioning

This work package served to demonstrate state-of-the-art communication and positioning technology for use in harsh mining environments. During the demonstration, this work package presented versatile, integrated and highly adaptable networks such as 5G. These are used for maintaining uninterrupted communication. Furthermore, the demonstration mine was used to present applications for precise positioning. Further objectives of this work package were the real-time interaction of people and machines, the acquisition and transmission of sensor and process data,the remote control of machines, vehicles and robots, as well as the storage and transmission of position and location data. All these goals were realized by installing an underground 5G network. (1) Within the scope of this work package, the AMT contributed both, its expertise in the underground localisation and positioning of vehicles and the underground localisation of people using ultra-wideband (UWB) technology.

Fig. 2. Precise localization and positioning of vehicles underground is the basis for their automation. // Bild 2. Eine präzise Lokalisierung und Positionsbestimmung von Fahrzeugen unter Tage ist die Grundlage für deren Automatisierung. Source/Quelle: SIMS-Project

Precise localization and positioning of vehicles underground is the basis for their automation (Figure 2). However, conventional positioning systems, such as a satellite-based positioning system (GPS), cannot be used underground. For this reason, a UWB backup system developed by AMT is used. This system has decisive advantages, such as robustness and the ability to position and locate vehicles underground in a mine reference system. A further use of the UWB replacement system is the establishment of a communication network. This network also works during a fire, where the standard network could be damaged. The UWB network therefore serves as a redundant system for the transmission of small amounts of data, e. g., an emergency message. (2)

Over the course of the SIMS project, extensive development work was carried out for the UWB technology application, which was successfully demonstrated. This included the development of hardware including the design of boards, software algorithms, as well as sensor fusion systems, which were tested and demonstrated in partner mines in Zielitz/Germany and Kristineberg/Sweden. The UWB project focus was on the development of a large-scale positioning in underground sections and entire mine areas in combination with other technologies like inertial navigation. During the demonstration of this technology an accuracy of 50 cm could be achieved. In addition to field measurements in various mines, laboratory measurements were carried out with the aim of continuously improving the test system and adapting it to the required conditions. Fusion algorithms for the UWB system and the inertial measurement unit were improved and hardware components were matched. (2)

Ground Control

This work package demonstrated state-of-the-art ground control methods, ground control techniques and monitoring technologies for use in the harsh underground mining environment. The work package included improved control of seismic vibrations caused by blastings and the associated prevention of damage from underground blasting, improved bolt installation, and increased efficiency in the process of setting reinforcement nets. (1) Within the scope of this work package, the AMT contributed its many years of experience and expertise in the field of infrared thermography (IR) and image processing.

IR was used for two applications within the SIMS project. Firstly, infrared cameras were used to detect the material composition at the face. Secondly, this technology was used to detect imminent roof falls, which are already indicated by very small cracks. In both cases, the detection is still carried out manually in practice. With the help of the IR camera, however, the employee can now carry out the necessary analyses outside the danger zone, as a specially established WiFi network enables the data to be transferred to a tablet in real time. This increases work safety enormously, since e. g. the longwall face is still considered the most dangerous area in the mine. In addition, the information on the material composition of the face opens up enormous potential for selective and thus more efficient mining of raw materials, as the mining of overburden material can be minimized in this way. Similar to the UWB technology development, extensive development work has been carried out for IR. The developments were initially carried out on the basis of laboratory tests for the above-mentioned applications. After successful laboratory tests, the applications were tested and successfully demonstrated in the field, i. e. in the Zielitz potash mine. (2)

Integrated Process Control and Automation

In this work package, state-of-the-art process control technology was demonstrated in the underground mining environment. The technology was aimed at enabling a more efficient and safer process control in the entire demonstration mine. At the same time, the work package was designed to support the integration of the communication infrastructure from the previous work package and provide a control-ready architecture for the following mining robotics work package. (1)

Robotics in Mining

This work package demonstrated state-of-the-art robotic technology in a mining environment. In order to create a safe environment for people in the mine and to make the work more efficient, the robotics demonstration of the technological developments of the mine infrastructure from the two previous work packages was combined and applied. Applications for robotization were the automation of a wheel loader, assistance systems for battery powerd machines, the integration of Augmented Reality (AR) applications and a semi-autonomous drone for inspection purposes. (1)

Battery Powered Mining Equipment

In this work package, state-of-the-art mobile mining technology was demonstrated in a mining environment. The development of diesel-free mining technology is an important contribution to the mine of the future. The development and use of a battery-operated wheel loader, a dump truck and a drilling rig were demonstrated, as well as a partially automated battery changing process. (1)

Another application of the machine could serve as a platform for the demonstration of further automation solutions, where the machines interact with each other, or with people, via a modern communication network. (1)

Attractive Workplaces

Through a thorough examination of the work done in other work packages, this one supported the development of more attractive workplaces by influencing their design during the development process. The work package plays an important role in ensuring the acceptance of new technologies by the employees, but also in taking gender aspects into account when designing the workplaces in the mine of the future. In addition, it was meant to increase the acceptance of the mining sector in society by informing and educating wider society about the fact that modern mining offers attractive workplaces that are no longer “dusty”, “dirty” and “dangerous”, but rather high-tech driven. (1)

Outreach Demonstration Platform

This work package dealt with the educational, outreach and communication aspects of the SIMS project. An important goal of the project was education and demonstration, both for a quick market uptake and for building more trust and social acceptance for the mining industry. The mining industry depends on social acceptance, where trust and understanding are of crucial importance. The acceptance of the mining industry was to be increased by improving transparency, communication and public presentation of sustainable, intelligent mining systems. In particular, the public effective communication and visualisation of the demonstration activities of the project aimed to build trust and increase public acceptance. An important part of the work package was also the understanding of the effects of new technologies in the mines. Direct dialogues in a stakeholder forum and local reference groups served this purpose. For a better visualization of sustainable mining processes and future-proof technologies, a virtual reality and augmented reality environment of a mine has also been developed in cooperation with other work packages. It can be used, e. g., at trade fairs, exhibitions or for training purposes and gives a lively and direct impression of the underground world. (1)

Final considerations

The project was completed in spring 2020 with extensive demonstrations in various mines in Europe. As a result, the project was able to show how a modern, safe, and efficient mine can be realised in concrete terms. Thus, the project succeeded in demonstrating, in an exemplary manner and in practice, how mining as a whole can be transformed and thus become more socially acceptable, increasingly attractive for junior staff, and more resource efficient and environmentally friendly.

With regard to the goals that the AMT had set itself within the framework of the work packages, it was possible to achieve all the objectives set. In both application areas (UWB and infrared thermography), both software and hardware developments in prototype format have been created.

With respect to localisation and positioning using UWB, results in the range of accuracy (< 0.5 m) could be achieved, people could be localised and there was the possibility to demonstrate the collision avoidance of man and machine. Furthermore, it was possible to send an emergency message via the stable UWB network.

In the field of infrared thermography it was possible to carry out layer and material recognition and to classify these also directly at the mine face. Furthermore, an automated crack detection of the ridges and the joint on a vehicle could be adapted. In a further development it might be possible to link the systems with each other in order not only to detect cracks or materials, but also to locate them simultaneously via the UWB system and record them on the mine map.

The project goals of the other work packages were also achieved. This made it possible to show in a very concrete and tangible way how sustainable mining can be realized and implemented in Europe. Especially the variety and complexity of the project components and the scope of the demonstrations make the project to be a milestone project. Not only has it been possible to successfully convert diesel-powered machines to battery operation, the technologies developed have also made it possible to make various processes in the mine more efficient. The developments in the field of UWB technology also made an important contribution to the autonomous mine of the future by advancing the localisation and positioning of machines and people and successfully implementing collision avoidance. Thus, the project as a whole will hopefully make an important contribution to the further development of sustainable mining in Europe.

Under the following links you will find all related demonstration videos and further information material:



Authors/Autoren: Tobias Wendel M. Sc., Dr.-Ing. Ralph Baltes, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Elisabeth Clausen, Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT), RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany