For those unfamiliar with the term Heritage Monitoring, it refers to the process of validating whether mining activities have minimal or no impact on heritage sites. Heritage sites close to mining operations need constant and consistent monitoring. Considering the remote nature of mining operations, they are often monitored using satellites. Using this technology, a current picture of the heritage site can be collated using a combination of images and videos. This allows mining operators to see if there has been physical damage, unregulated access, environmental impact and/or impact through vibration. Mining customers are exploring options that include enabling the mine with next-generation communications, as well as using CCTVs around the periphery of the mines with the imagery streamed back using satellites in low earth orbit. All this data transmission and management is being made possible using satellite technology. Its impact in the mining sector is becoming undeniable as it is being actively used to help the industry propel itself into the digital age. Satellite technology is helping the mining industry to improve safety, increase productivity, and operate more efficiently in remote locations.
Role of SATCOMMS in the mining industry
Satellite communications is undergoing significant changes. Traditionally, they have relied on geo-synchronous satellites, however recent developments by Starlink, Amazon, OneWeb and the like have opened up opportunities for low earth orbit satellites (LEO). LEO satellites provide increased bandwidth and much lower latency in terms of signals to and from the satellite.
Whether it is in the desert or across snow clad terrains, satellites are especially important in the mining sector to provide reliable and consistent communications. Remote areas that are limited by terrestrial communication especially benefit this industry where it can be used to monitor equipment, track vehicles as well as provide feedback from on-ground sensors to key and relevant stakeholders.
Satellite communications are critical during states of emergencies. In western Australia, the wet seasons prove challenging owing to severe rains and cyclones. Satellite comms work as a backup for these workers providing relief if there are issues or the teams require rescue efforts. Exploration efforts are massively aided by satellites. During the early phases of mining surveys, transportation of data back and forth relies on satellites to keep teams linked up and communications online.
As the mining operations progress, the need for communications plays a huge role in fleet management. With Autonomous Handling Systems (AHS) being an integral part to how mining operators manage their equipment, relying on LTE networks may not always be a stable form of communications. In these instances, GNSS and other satellite comms help run the management of these systems. The proliferation of 5G will also enable better use of IoT across the mining sector.
Earth observation and its impact on mining
Earth Observation (EO) plays a distinct yet integral role in the mining and energy sector by providing high-quality data to support various aspects of the industry with the ability to monitor the same area daily. EO satellites use a variety of remote sensing technologies, such as radar, and optical sensors, to collect data on the Earth's surface, atmosphere, and oceans. This data is then transmitted to ground stations or directly to end-users. There is nearly 300 TB of data that is being downlinked per day from EO satellites. At this point, automation, AI and ML help dissect the data and create meaningful and usable insights for the customer.
One of the primary applications of EO mineral exploration, where EO data can identify geological structures and mineral deposits that may be difficult to detect on the ground. EO can also provide valuable information on the quality and quantity of mineral resources, helping mining companies optimize their exploration efforts and minimize costs. EO satellites orbit the Earth, and therefore can provide coverage for the whole of the globe. However, transmitting data from these satellites to ground stations can be challenging due to the vast distances involved. Improvements in satellite communications, including inter-satellite relays will help provide a reliable and efficient means of transmitting data from EO satellites, enabling global coverage of the Earth's environment.
Aiding sustainability in mining operations
Satellite technology plays a pivotal role in the mining sector by monitoring and managing of environmental impacts. Mining activities can have significant environmental impacts, including water pollution and habitat destruction. Satellites can provide critical information on the environmental impacts of mining activities, such as the extent of land disturbance and the concentration of pollutants in water bodies. This information can help mining companies minimize their environmental footprint and comply with environmental regulations.
Several years after the Brumadinho dam disaster, mining companies continue to emphasize the impact of tailings management in the industry. Satellites can be used to remotely monitor tailings storage facilities (TSFs) using sensors, complemented by IoT devices and cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. These sensors can detect changes in temperature, moisture, and stability, which can indicate potential issues with the TSF. The data collected by the sensors is transmitted to a ground station or cloud-based platform. This enables real-time monitoring of TSFs, allowing operators to quickly detect and respond to potential issues.
Satellites are also be used to monitor the transportation of tailings from the mine to the TSF. This can be done using GPS-enabled tracking devices, which transmit data on the location and movement of the tailings to a central monitoring platform. This data can be used to ensure that tailings are transported safely and efficiently, reducing the risk of spills or other incidents.
Historically, satellites have proven expensive and difficult to sustain. However, the advent of smaller and agile satellites has transformed the satellite communications and EO ecosystem by bringing data and information closer to businesses and key stakeholders. For an industry like mining, where regulations and compliances are stringent, investors and capital are contingent on strong plans and consistent monitoring is the need of the hour, satellite technologies are creating a pathway that is driving an efficient, effective, and sustainable agenda.
About the Authors
Steve has worked in the space domain in excess of 20 years, primarily in Earth Observation, initially as a technical specialist, through consulting, into sales and business development. He has extensive experience in the application of satellite technology in defence, government and commercial markets, with both SME’s and multi-nationals.
Anthony has a background founded in in software application design and productization, IT and OT, as well as a passion for harnessing the power of disruptive technologies. Anthony has extensive experience within mining & natural resources, oil & gas, telecommunications, government, utilities and manufacturing sectors, with key skills in satellite technology, geospatial, commercial strategy, product management, process improvement and executive level leadership. He is adept at building and developing sustainable solutions, sustainable businesses and architecting enterprise platform solutions.