But despite all the benefits these emerging technologies offer to equipment operators on (and under) the ground, the ultimate beneficiaries are investors.
Goldcorp's VP for technology Luis Canepari says the value proposition around applying new technologies at old, and especially new mines, can no longer be ignored.
"The ultimate winners are investors, who stand to benefit from the efficiencies and cost reductions new mining technologies bring. They can either invest in companies driving the technological advances that miners successfully apply in their operations, or they profit from increased cash distributions from the miners as a direct result of bigger cash flows generated from the operational efficiencies technology unlocks," he tells Mining Journal.
"I'm a firm believer technology will change the mining industry in the next 10 years. It is not sustainable to continue the way we've been operating for the last 100 years. We need to reinvent ourselves and figure out a way to become more efficient and reduce our environmental footprint. It means we can open new mines in communities where it had previously not been possible."
As reserves and resources continue to dwindle on an annual basis, Canepari - who played a pivotal role in establishing the C$11.6 billion company's $116 million digital transformation strategy - underscores the need to use new technologies to provide access to previously closed markets. Projects that are not profitable today using current mining methods, could suddenly become profitable through the application of emerging technologies.
Likewise, new technologies can offer a lifeline to projects dealing with social acceptance issues, reducing the environmental footprint and making them benign and even beneficial to host communities.
"It is imperative for technology to evolve to help us to operate in those jurisdictions where either mines are not currently economical, or where there are requirements that current technology cannot help mitigate and meet."
In Canepari's book, the top three disruptors include dry-stacked tailings, which has significant scope to reduce water use, improve the associated long-term economics of mines of the future, and significantly improve the safety and environmental impacts of projects for future generations," he says.
The automation and electrification of mining fleets are also seen as major disruptors. "Everyday, more mines commit to become automated. By 2020, we will already have many mines operating under this new paradigm of full automation, and by 2030, there will be a substantial number of new mines built substantially, or fully automated and electrified. That will reshape the way mines are built," he says.
A bonus is that the electrification of mining equipment helps reduce diesel fuel consumption and reduces the need for substantial ventilation infrastructure investments for underground operations.
According to Canepari, the vanguard of mining technology innovation lies in artificial intelligence (AI) applications. AI is starting to have a real impact in the mining sector.
"When you look at the billions of dollars currently being spent on AI development, it means the field has been advancing rapidly over the past five years. When you apply AI, whether it is in exploration, maintenance, or even in decline design optimisation, the implications are fabulous.
"The real value of this is that it allows for real time optimisation of the mine plan when you input drilling data or tweak mining models - AI applications automatically update all other relevant areas and are continually applying machine learning to optimise these results and maximise the amount of minerals we get from mines. It will be a huge factor in reducing costs."
He does not discount the potential for an outsider to drive innovation within the mining sector either. For example, Canepari points to the surprise US$13.7 billion acquisition by Amazon of the North American grocery chain Whole Foods just more than a year ago. "With the advent of the circular economy, who is to say a sector such as consumer electronics manufacturers would not at some point want to drive innovation in the mining space, so they can secure their supply chains and better vouch for ethically sourced metals they use in their products?"
Goldcorp is a leading innovator and has digitised, automated and applied new technologies to various aspects of the mining life cycle. It advocates for the industry to accelerate the cycle of innovation even more to stay competitive, deliver greater value to shareholders and be best prepared for the future.
For this reason, the gold major is once again sponsoring the #DisruptMining challenge to search for and reward innovators in the mining industry. Now in its third iteration, #DisruptMining offers entrepreneurs a platform to bring disruptive and exponential technologies to the sector, whether it's unlocking exploration opportunities; finding operational and production efficiencies; reducing the environmental footprint and delivering on sustainability commitments; or developing alternative ways to finance capital projects.
Following the 2018 #DisruptMining challenge, winner Acoustic Zoom, an advanced geophysics company specialising in innovative seismic solutions, secured a C$1 million investment in its business from Goldcorp and launched a $150,000 pilot programme at Goldcorp's Red Lake gold mines, in Ontario. Canepari points out other #DisruptMining alumni including Enviroleach, LlamaZoo, Open Mineral, Bio-Mine, Cementation, Goldspot Discoveries, KORE Geosystems and Tradewind Markets have transformed their rogue ideas, become established start-ups, substantially evolved their services and operations, or have scaled their leading-edge technology solutions.
Any innovator interested in pitching their idea at the #DisruptMining innovation expo and ‘shark-tank'-style live event during the 2019 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's 2019 convention is encouraged to apply at: www.disruptmining.com. Submissions will be accepted until November 5, at 11:59 pm EST.