Courtesy of CEMI

From exploration to reclamation, mines generate massive amounts of data. But information without analysis is useless. So how do you effectively use this growing commodity to maximize efficiency while expanding knowledge and improving the bottom line? Marcus Thomson, director of the Innovation and Prosperity Office at the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), is focused on this and other questions through his work at the new Mining Observatory Data Control Centre (MODCC) at the SNOLAB facility near Sudbury, Ontario.

CIM: What was your career path leading to your work with digital technology at CEMI and the MODCC?

Marcus Thomson: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in data, communication technology, information systems and analytics. I’m a graduate of Laurentian University’s Commerce program (I’m currently completing an MBA), and before joining CEMI, I worked for large telecommunications and software companies, as well as a medium-sized mining service and supply company. In all these organizations, I witnessed the impact of well-managed data systems.

CIM: What is the MODCC, and what need was it created to answer? 

Thomson: The goal is for the MODCC to become a powerful user- and data-interpretation interface that can search, collect, filter and analyze mining- and exploration-related datasets. The impetus came from two academically driven programs that started around 2010. CEMI’s S.U.M.I.T. program focused on smart underground monitoring technologies for deep mining and NSERC-CMIC had another program called Footprints, which looked at the different data types used to discover the footprints of ore bodies. Both programs were very data driven and what was missing was a geoscience platform to incorporate all these different data types and expedite all the work that was being done. So the MODCC came out of that.

CIM: What is at the space currently – it’s a brick and mortar and a virtual presence?

Thomson: Yes, the MODCC is a physical incubation space that offers low-cost managed IT services and fast connectivity to several data-driven mining industry start-ups. It’s also a virtual presence for hosted mining datasets. A company called Mira Geoscience has built an integrated geoscience platform (Geoscience INTEGRATOR) that takes structured and unstructured data and enables modelling, both in 3D and 4D, the latter of which is time based. The tool then gives you the ability to do 3D data visualization, machine learning, it has live web browser access, and you can have send- and receive-email reports. So currently, mining data from S.U.M.I.T. and Footprints resides in INTEGRATOR at the MODCC, and it can be used to generate insights unlike anything ever before.

CIM: Can you give me an example of the kinds of projects you plan to work on with Canadian mining companies in the short term?

Thomson: The latest project at the MODCC, with support from the Canadian government, is called the Smart Mining Demonstration Program. It involves working directly with mining companies on reduced-cost, data-driven innovation projects that bring multiple small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and different data sources together to build out what we call “use cases.” For example, one we are focused on now looks at something called “short interval control.” Short interval control has been implemented all over the world – in Finland, Sweden, the U.S., Australia, and more. This involves digitizing supervisor forms and vehicle information, then using underground connectivity to share the information with the control room. Now, the control room workers know whether you are going to hit your targets for the day, and if not, you can do something about it. So the basis of short interval control is: can we get information before it’s too late to do anything with it, and can we make sure our workers are being as effective as possible?

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CIM: What is the value of such an approach?

Thomson: Mines that have implemented short interval control have seen a 15 per cent reduction in cost-per-time within six months of implementing and a 20 per cent increase in productivity within six weeks. So even for a medium-sized mine, that potentially translates into tens of millions of dollars annually in return.

CIM: So the beneficiaries of the MODCC will ultimately be SMEs and mining companies, by creating a centralized point where they can access the data they need?

Thomson: That would be ideal. What we really need to do before we can make that centralized data available is build up those trust relationships with the mining companies. We’re not expecting them to give us proprietary data and then we go find companies that can use it. The first step is actually working with those companies and building up the data; that’s our initial focus. But in the longer term, those are the two stakeholders we seek to serve: Canadian mining companies and Canadian SMEs.

CIM: How do you plan to engage SMEs? 

Thomson: With SMEs we want to support them not only with that physical space, but also with the resources they need to develop their technology. Beyond the hosted datasets available virtually through the MODCC, that might be enabling relationships with large providers of cloud computing, with machine learning algorithms, and so forth, which can lower the cost of developing technology. And, through our Smart Demonstration program, we’ll have the opportunity to engage specific SMEs with real-life opportunities for them to innovate and partner with other innovators from across Canada.

CIM: How does the MODCC serve the goals of CEMI, particularly around digital technologies and its future application to mining?

Thomson: With technology moving forward, CEMI’s objective is very much to serve exploration and the discovery of new mines, the operation of existing mines, and the environmental aspects and sustainability of mines. And in all of those areas there are digital innovations that can make a real difference.

CIM: Historically R&D was dependent on data generated through academic journals, and it is a slow process. Is this an opportunity for the MODCC to accelerate this process?

Thomson: It’s absolutely the objective. When you don’t have to hunt down the correct data that you need to come up with the research you are looking to do, it makes it so much easier. We’d really like to shrink the time that a researcher is hunting down data for a project, because then they can focus on their core expertise and create solutions that take advantage of advanced analytics capabilities. That’s where the real value is, hopefully.

CIM: It’s still early days for the MODCC, but what is the vision for the future? 

Thomson: We hope to eventually create a service that collects, integrates, securely stores and distributes data. For example, streaming data that originates from sensor arrays in operating mines will eventually be assessed in real-time, making the MODCC a “living data centre.” The MODCC could one day provide an ideal “knowledge hotspot” or incubator for research and technical teams from around the world to visit, analyze and interpret data, and gain new insight