Matthew Bester, from geospatial technology specialist GeoSLAM, explains how innovations in mobile scanning systems can help African mine operators calculate stockpile masses and make time-critical decisions, without compromising safety or disrupting operations.

Measuring stockpiles is a time-consuming and often hazardous undertaking. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Measuring stockpiles is a time-consuming and often hazardous undertaking. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Any volatility in either African mining or commodity prices over the past year has not stopped investors from around the world seeking new opportunities across the continent.

Every day, it seems, there are fresh reasons to be optimistic about the future of the industry. For a start, West Africa has been hailed as the ‘hottest ticket’ in gold mining, thanks to its untapped and shallow deposits, which are relatively easy and cost-effective to excavate.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s minister for mines and steel development, Olamilekan Adegbite recently predicted ‘exponential growth’ in the country’s mining industry because of demand not just for gold, but other key minerals including lead and zinc. Such is the strength of the market, mining is expected to account for three per cent of the country’s GDP within five years, up from the current 0.3 per cent.

Demand for consumer electronics will no doubt strengthen the global mining market further over the coming years, as could the popularity of gold, diamonds, and palladium as an investment option. Coal is another likely growth area, as mining the huge untapped reserves of Botswana steps up.

There is clearly no shortage of opportunities for investors – but there are plenty of challenges to navigate too. A report from PwC points to the legal and tax issues operators may face, as well as other considerations such as political and social stability in a country, and the quality of its infrastructure.

The challenges do not stop there, of course. Geo-political events, high operating costs, currency fluctuations and the availability of labour and equipment could potentially derail projects, or at least make them less profitable.

Given the risks associated with working in this sector, projects must be carefully managed at every stage to ensure maximum efficiency and ROI, without compromising the health and safety of workers.

From the feasibility study to excavation, mining companies are under pressure to optimise complex sites by keeping costs low, productivity high and goods moving. They cannot afford to sit on stockpile inventory for longer than is necessary; instead, they need to calculate their volumes, so they know exactly what they have to sell.

No matter what the commodity, measuring stockpiles in mines and quarries is hazardous and time-consuming if you do not have the right equipment. Indeed, it can take as many as 200 work hours of time to calculate just one site using traditional survey methods, which may not be accurate enough anyway, given the irregular shape of stockpiles.

As companies are paid by volume, they need highly-accurate and up-to-date stockpile measurements. Any time-lag or miscalculation could quickly result in lost sales and revenues and commercially-damaging disputes.

However, recent innovations in remote scanning technology are helping to address these problems, while also paving the way for more African mining companies to enter the market and attract international investment, even if their budgets are relatively small.

One system that has been gaining traction with mining companies is GeoSLAM Volumes, where operators calculate the weight and bulk of stockpiles by scanning its mass then generating a 3D representation using point cloud data.

The scanners used can capture data points (even from hazardous and hard-to-reach areas) and make complex calculations up to 10 times faster than manual surveying methods – without disrupting operations or compromising employee safety.

Tools like the Zeb Horizon scanner, for instance, use SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) technology, and can be operated by workers with no prior training, either on foot or by UAV. The Horizon is capable of scanning 300 000 points per second at a range of 100m, with a relative accuracy of between 1 – 3cm.

The capture process is so straightforward that users are able to complete multiple scans throughout the lifecycle of the project, so data is always accurate and up-to-date. Since this device uses SLAM not GPS, it is also suitable for areas with poor coverage and enclosed spaces such as tunnels.

The issue of health and safety is, quite rightly, a priority for any reputable mining company today. While it is certainly reassuring that South Africa saw mining-related deaths fall to an ‘all-time low’ to 51 in 2019, it remains a dangerous occupation and there is no room for complacency. Commercial pressure to deliver more materials faster is no excuse to cut corners and risk the lives of those working on a site.

There are regular reports of miners being trapped underground, which only underlines the importance of regularly testing the shaft’s structural integrity and avoiding the most hazardous locations. On site, the height and instability of some stockpiles bring a risk of collapse, yet mobile scanning allows them to be managed remotely and safely.

Globally, the move towards renewable energy looks set to drive up demand for the minerals used in solar panels, batteries and other equipment, and Africa’s rich deposits mean it is well-placed to benefit from this. Continued investment in mining could transform the fortunes of nations, developing skills, creating jobs and building strong economies.

At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that African mining is competing on the world stage, against regions such as South America, Russia and Australia. But, as we have seen, technology is helping to democratise the industry, breaking down barriers to entry and allowing more firms to operate safely, efficiently and productively. As long as companies leverage the right tools, they should be well-placed to take market share from their international rivals now and in the future.