Large-scale disruption can be a tough sell in any industry, but in a sector as dyed-in-the-wool as mining, it can be downright impossible.
“Changing this whole industry, you need to convince geologists, engineers, financing people and planners,” says Jean-Yves Therrien, vice-president of development for thermal fragmentation developer, Nippon Dragon Resources Inc. “To get all those people on the same page, it’s very difficult.”
The following three companies, including the Quebec-based Nippon Dragon Resources, refuse to be dissuaded, though, and are in the process of developing technologies that they hope will change the face of mining forever.
Two years ago, long before January’s announcement of a takeover by Colorado’s Newmont Mining Corp., Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc. wanted to know how artificial intelligence (AI) could be applied to locating gold deposits. It partnered with IBM Canada to see what could be done with IBM’s Watson system, which combines AI and advanced analytics.
“[The partnership] was really with Goldcorp saying, ‘We need to change, we can’t keep doing the things that we’re doing,’ ” says Mark Fawcett, energy partner with IBM Canada, explaining that the company’s philosophy of spending or cutting back depending entirely on the commodity cycle was unsustainable.
The two targeted one of Canada’s largest gold mines, Goldcorp’s Red Lake mine in northwestern Ontario, as the guinea pig. Taking all the drilling data and other values that Goldcorp had accumulated on the mine, IBM Canada built out a data platform over two years.
The resulting AI – called IBM Exploration with Watson – rapidly cut down the time it would take a geologist to identify a potential drill site. In a test, traditional methods of identifying a site took 156 hours. Using the AI, it took four and a half.
“It’s basically taking all the data, looking at all of the correlations, basically providing the algorithms, it will come back and provide a recommendation that we think there’s a target there,” Mr. Fawcett says.
The geologist can then use their own experience to make a decision, applying other data or altering the algorithm a little, based on their own knowledge of a certain site, to improve the reliability of the outcome.
While Mr. Fawcett says it’s too early to say how the merger with Newmont will affect the “industry-leading” work that IBM Canada has been doing with Goldcorp, he says he would not be surprised to see the focus on this innovation continuing. IBM Canada has also branched out in this space, and is currently working with more than 10 different mining companies globally.
By virtue of the fact that AI has the possibility of removing human bias, Mr. Fawcett says there is the potential for some interesting insights in the way exploration is done on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I think you’re going to see really unique things because if you look at it historically, North America, South America and Africa were together [as one land mass],” he says. “Are there geological formations potentially that are in Africa that could be carried over into South America?”
Ultimately though, IBM Exploration with Watson has the potential to cut down on the time geologists spend pursuing dead ends.
“We’re actually enabling the geologist to do the job they’re supposed to do, which is basically identifying a target, and they have greater confidence in the target they’re providing,” Mr. Fawcett says.
THE SKY GUYS
Ever since founding the drone company The Sky Guys in 2015, Adam Sax, the president and chief executive officer, felt that mining would be a natural fit.
But like so many other technology companies before him, gaining forward-thinking interest from the industry was tougher than he anticipated, and the company almost decided to forego it entirely and focus on oil and gas exploration.
What a difference two years can make, though, with Mr. Sax estimating that mining now makes up about 25 per cent of the Oakville, Ont., company’s business, with the firm operating its drones for mining companies in every province in Canada, as well as in 42 states south of the border.
“Now it’s mining companies coming to us and sitting down and basically putting everything on the table and asking, ‘Where can we automate these processes, where can we apply drones?’ ” he says.
Safer, faster and cheaper than the traditional methods of manned aircraft for covering off site inspections, visual monitoring or safeguarding equipment, the potential for drones is only just starting to be fully realized, according to Mr. Sax.
“Drones haven’t fully disrupted the mining industry and a big part of that is some of the limitations they have had,” he says. Those limitations have included how far the machines can fly, what type of weather they can fly in, the kind of sensors they can carry and the sort of data they can process, and how quickly.
The Sky Guys aim to resolve many of those restrictions with the launch of its latest drone, the DX-3 Vanguard, later this year. Larger than previous models with a four-metre wingspan, the DX-3 can fly up to 25 hours or 1,600 kilometres, and carry larger sensors, with a load-bearing capacity of three kilograms.
“The great part about a product like the DX-3 is a company can have eyes in the sky 24/7 so they can constantly capture data,” Mr. Sax says. "In addition to that, the cost is still considerably less, in most cases almost 60 per cent less, than the traditional methods that they’re capturing [data with] today.”
NIPPON DRAGON RESOURCES
It’s not lost on Mr. Therrien that the technology currently being championed by Nippon Dragon Resources Inc. is very much a back-to-the-future proposition.
As the company’s vice-president of development explains, the Romans and Mayans employed thermal fragmentation as a way of mining valuable metals from the earth, long before the use of explosives.
“The fact is we perfected the first mining tool of the world,” he says of the Brossard, Que., company’s patented “dragon head.” It’s essentially a diesel burner that can be inserted into a rock through a traditional drill hole, where it uses heat to shatter the structure, allowing ore to be extracted.
The method offers a number of advantages over traditional explosives, including less dilution and reduced environmental impact, as thermal fragmentation produces less mining waste.
The main advantage is that, with about two centimetres of precision, it can be used in small veins ranging up to around 1.2-1.5 metres wide.
“Because it’s really a precision extraction process, it makes sense to use it more for deposits that have a narrow or very straight structure,” Mr. Therrien says. “Narrow-vein gold, narrow-vein silver, platinum, uranium, even copper.”
According to Mr. Therrien, about 80 per cent of all the remaining precious metals in the world are in narrow veins of rock less than two metres wide.
“So our technology is good for 80 per cent of the remaining resources in precious metals,” he says.