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Inmarsat: how satellite-enabled IoT is disrupting mining

Inmarsat’s Director of Mining Innovation, Joe Carr discusses satellite-enabled IoT solutions, developing automated mining and drilling as a service

Dan Brightmore
|Jul 30|magazine22 min read

Inmarsat was established in 1979 by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a United Nations body, to provide a satellite communications network that would protect the lives of mariners anywhere at sea. It was the first satellite operator to meet the stringent requirements of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for global safety communications. Today its satellite communication services save lives, empower people and communities, enable business and trade, and support humanitarian work in the most remote and challenging locations across a range of industries from aviation to mining. 

“Much like the maritime industry, mining battles the elements in remote locations where there’s no communication,” says Inmarsat’s Director of Mining Innovation Joe Carr. “There’s a synergy here and that ability to provide remote communications anywhere on the planet is the founding requirement of Inmarsat across all the industries we serve.” 

Carr highlights that Inmarsat has been working with the mining industry since its inception in the 70s. “We continue to be its leading provider of global mobile satellite connectivity. So, it doesn't matter where you go, you can take a phone and the internet with you and you have access to those comms, whether you're in Africa, South America, the CIS region or a remote part of Australia. This really is the core founding principle of how Inmarsat started.”

Tailings dam monitoring

Carr’s role is to build on Inmarsat’s expertise with communications and develop new offerings such as the company’s award-winning tailings dam monitoring solution. “That grew out of a conversation with our engineers when we asked, ‘How can we do this better?’” he recalls. 

“It links back to Inmarsat's heritage in terms of safety. We looked at it as a problem we could solve and with our safety mandate it was a project close to our hearts. We wanted to build an innovative solution that allowed companies to better monitor their tailings facilities. My role as Director of Mining Innovation is to identify ideas like this and then find other digital systems and solutions that companies need. We work with both OEMs and mining companies to develop new technologies and solutions inside the industry.”

Following the tragic events in Brumadinho in Brazil last year, Carr believes it’s more important than ever to address the issue of monitoring tailings dams across the world in real time. “Taking readings manually is not efficient,” he notes. “If we want to know what's happening on the dam, it's easier to get on a plane and fly there than it is to try and get the information on site. We live in the 21st century, it's crazy! Mine tailings audits are typically carried out at infrequent intervals, with employees and third-party consultants making long distance trips to collect data and audit the status of the dams. Our tailings dam monitoring solution makes data available between site visits to any accredited users, anywhere in the world. In this way, we support the mining industry’s commitment to zero-harm, while enabling our customers to minimise environmental risk and achieve high levels of safety and operational success.”

Though lamenting that the mining industry can be slow to implement change, Carr emphasises that there has been great work done with mining’s commitment to zero harm. “The accident frequency rate across the industry is falling. How we better monitor tailings facilities, tackle the problem and take forward new standards and principles in terms of IoT, better governance tools and real time monitoring is going to be the direction that the industry is driven. All of our social license to operate is driven from that. If people will allow us to mine, build tailings and other facilities, then we can mine the basic resources needed to tackle issues like climate change.”

Collaboration

Partnerships are vital for Inmarsat as it seeks to exploit synergies across the industries it serves. Integral to the development of its tailings dam monitoring solution has been an alliance, dating back to 2017, with innovation partners Knight Piésold UK (KP), a member of the international geotechnical, tailings management and engineering consulting group. 

“The current tailings auditing and management business consists of semi-annual or annual site visits with recommendations based on these visits,” explains Richard Elmer, Regional Manager for Knight Piésold UK. “Instrumentation data is often collected on-site and mining companies are largely reliant on human activity for the collection, storage and analysis of the data. Our collaboration with Inmarsat provides our clients access to the latest and best available technology for real time data collection and analysis. We see this as a game changing improvement in how companies monitor their current tailings storage facilities.” 

“Working with the likes of KP adds a whole other level of capability,” confirms Carr. “They're able to instruct on the best instruments to use and the most flexible approach to analysis. It helps us provide a very rounded capability for the end customer. We look at partnerships like these across spectrum; from small suppliers of LiDAR digital sensors for survey mapping, to agritech companies with expertise in water monitoring and crop yields. In relationships like these we see Inmarsat technology as an enabler.”

Inmarsat is also an active leadership member of the Global Mining Guidelines Group (GMG) - a network of representatives from mining companies, OEMs, OTMs, research organisations, consultants and regulators around the world who collaborate to tackle challenges facing the industry. “Our membership allows us to sit at the table with major mining organisations, including Barrick, Anglo American and BHP,” says Carr. “We help agree the standards and frameworks for strategies that will protect the safety of the workforce, combat climate change and ensure interoperability. It allows us to take our knowledge and capability and give back to the industry to tackle some of its biggest challenges.”

Innovation

“Inmarsat is a company where you can run into rocket scientists; I’m just the guy that’s used to drilling holes,” jokes Carr. “The tailings dam monitoring solution came about from a conversation with our head of solutions, architecture and enterprise, who was working with IoT technology on a water dam in Australia to measure things like water levels and piezometric pressure. That was the genesis of our approach and shows what you can achieve with our synergies across the military and aviation sectors and their use of drones and autonomous systems.”

Carr reveals Inmarsat is currently looking at how drills could be run via satellite. “If you were to remove the need for any onsite network on a mine and could run that drill autonomously via a satellite network you could put the drill anywhere on the planet without flying people around the world to set up a new system. This could be quite disruptive for the mining industry and potentially allow it to utilise drilling-as-a-service.”

Challenging the status quo

“The commodity cycle is always going to be a big macro focus for the industry,” says Carr. “That's why when we're working, we try to do things that aren't just focused on the cost; we want to make sure that ultimately we're providing real value. We face the same challenges as any innovator. When you've got a new idea, you're always going to face the response: ‘This is the way we've always done things.’ We’re used to that because we work in the military and aviation where anything new takes years to get passed by regulators. 

“However, a lot of the challenges within the mining industry come from how we embrace the adoption of new technologies. Autonomous drilling is a great example. It's very compelling, yet when you talk to a lot of mining industry companies, they are always going to be hesitant because they’ll want to know how we ensure success. It's why they like proven technology which has been around for 10 years or more. But it doesn't necessarily mean that it's the most innovative, cutting edge technology available.”

Setting the Trend

Carr notes a sea change in the way that the mining industry, through organisations like the GMG, PRI (Principles for Responsible Investment), ICMM (International Council on Mining and Metals) and the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), is looking at CSR through global, not just regional, standards. “It’s the first time the industry has been pushed on a global issue so it will be interesting to see how these standards progress.”

Automation is another key trend Inmarsat is watching closely. “I think the trick will be to expand automation beyond the majors,” says Carr. “We all know they’re doing great work in the Pilbara with automated trucks. The next level is going to be how we take those systems and make them cost effective for mid-tiers and others across the industry as a whole. Globally, we still have a lot of sites that do not benefit from automation. They either don't have the technology and skills, or the cost is prohibitive. We need to look at how we produce more connectivity for less. How can we be more efficient and trickle down the automation lessons learned over the past decade to the rest of the industry?”

2020 Vision

The big goal for Inmarsat this year will be setting the direction for its tailings dam work with the agreement of a framework from the UNEP, ICMM and PRI for an international tailings standard. “We’ve been communicating with the various stakeholders and believe the outcome of that standard will be extremely positive,” says Carr. “Much of the industry is holding fire as to what they want to do. There’s likely to be a big acceleration of work when it is published.” (Publication was due in Q2 2020 but has been delayed due to the impact of COVID19).

“The next big challenge is to really help the mining industry understand satellite, the way it does LTE,” says Carr. “We want to bring it more into the mainstream and bust some of those myths around what ‘satellite’ is. We want to ensure we can do things like automation projects and drive industry uptake and capability. It’s our big mission throughout 2020 and beyond to expand the industry’s skill set and scope providing capabilities to the regions and companies that need to level up to make mining ready to resource the future.”

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