Imagine if mining companies could send an unmanned aerial vehicle, instead of a person, into a dark, narrow underground area to document the landscape or the scene following an industrial accident. Well, the Autonomous Robots Labs (ARL) at the University of Nevada, Reno is developing the technology for autonomous aerial robots to do just that, to explore, survey, map and monitor underground mines when they can’t rely upon an operator’s vision or the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Earlier this year, the team conducted multi-day tests of its mine inspection robotics in the field, which demonstrated “full exploration autonomy of underground drifts and headings using aerial robots,” according to the ARL.
Aerial robots are just one of the hightech tools and methods in development or use for or by Nevada’s mining industry. They range from automation of individual tasks to an entirely new mining approach.
“It’s pretty exciting because we’re seeing such rapid innovation,” said Dana Bennett, the president of the Nevada Mining Association (NMA), a Reno-based trade organization comprised of about 520 member companies.
Industry at a Glance
Nevada was named the world’s top jurisdiction for mining investment in 2018, as determined through a survey by the Fraser Institute, a Canada-based research and educational organization. An estimated $460.1 million was spent that year on exploration only, not development or production, reflecting a directional reversal and a 28 percent year-over-year uptick, Survey of Nevada’s Mineral and Energy Exploration Industry showed.
Seventy-seven percent of those millions of dollars went to exploration for precious metals, 15.1 percent to base metals, 5.1 percent to energy metals, 2.7 percent to geothermal and 0.4 percent to industrial minerals. That total investment reflects favorably on The Silver State.
“We tend to interpret a strong exploration economy as indicative of a strong mining industry,” Bennett said.
The economic sector, encompassing more than 100 mines producing 20 minerals essential to our day-to-day living, generated about $12.4 billion for the state’s economy in 2018, according to the NMA’s Nevada Mining by the Numbers, 2019. Earlier this year, McEwen Mining Inc. joined the roster, having poured its first gold at the Gold Bar mine in Eureka County.
Further, the Silver State is home to other, non-producing projects, in various stages. For example, Nevada Copper Corp. is on track to commence production at its Pumpkin Hollow project in Yerington by year-end 2019. Lithium Americas’ Thacker Pass lithium project in Humboldt County plans to submit a plan of operations to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management this fall. First Vanadium continues to advance its Carlin vanadium project in Elko County toward a preliminary economic assessment, slated for release in early 2020.
A High-Tech Core
Because technology remains a critical component of Nevada mining, companies are adopting and developing related advancements, Bennett said. Many of the latter have been exported around the globe.
“We’re seeing an uptick recently is intellectual property, where operators are developing their own methodologies, software or equipment and seeking patents,” said Sarah Bordelon, who is of counsel at Holland & Hart in the firm’s Reno office and assists clients in the mining and energy industries.
However, Nevada’s gold mining industry specifically has catching up to do. It hasn’t looked ahead enough and innovated as much as it should’ve because it hasn’t had to to turn a profit,” said Greg Walker, the executive managing director of Nevada Gold Mines, an Elko-based gold mining joint venture between Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Goldcorp.
“It’s such a strong gold mining area, such a strong resource that we haven’t been pushed to improve,” he added. “We haven’t had to be better to be successful. Our strength has also caused one of our weaknesses.”
The benefits to new technologies include better safety, improved working conditions, increased productivity and greater efficiencies, Walker said.
One downside, Corrado De Gasperis noted, is that even if the science works, it can still be cost prohibitive. He is the executive chairman and CEO of Virginia City-based Comstock Mining Inc.
Another is that emerging technologies expose operators to new areas of law, regarding unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous vehicles for example, which must be considered and followed, Bordelon said.
Also, opponents argue that new technologies are eliminating jobs. Bennett said, though, that jobs generally won’t go away but, rather, will change.
“We are going to need miners with great computer and digital skills,” she added.
Walker agreed but pointed out it’s difficult to attract and retain “young, enthusiastic, educated people” to support existing and advancing technology in terms of design and engineering when the existing services like broadband Internet, education, child care and healthcare in certain Nevada counties need improvement. Bennett described access to broadband in rural Nevada as “embarrassingly bad.”
New Eco-Friendly Mining
By year-end, Comstock Mining intends to begin testing a new technology that cleans mercury-contaminated soil while recovering trapped gold and silver previously deemed uneconomic by conventional mining methods, said De Gasperis. Mercury historically has been used in ore processing and continues to be used in many developing nations worldwide to extract gold from ore.
The approach will involve using a proprietary, organic liquid solution and mechanical, hydro, electro-chemical and oxidation processes to reclaim, treat, segregate and eliminate the mercury and isolate the precious metals.
Using this method, the mining company and its partners will tackle the hottest mercury spots on its sizable Comstock District land package in Storey and Lyon counties. It will do so through its joint venture, Mercury Clean Up, with California-based Oro Industries Inc., which developed and owns the clean technology. Oro manufactures ore processing equipment, including centrifuges and spiral concentrators that maximize mercury and metal recoveries.
Mercury Clean Up’s method not only remediates mercury-laden land, thus improving the ecosystem and bolstering local economics, but it also represents an ecofriendly way to mine in the future. Thus, it changes the conventional mining paradigm. Further, unlike traditional historical mining, this clean tech approach does not deplete the world’s existing reserves and heighten reclamation liabilities.
“We’re mining, but in a new way,” De Gasperis said. “We’re using clean solutions, clean technology, clean chemical-free liquids, and it’s inherently so much safer.”
Subsequently, De Gasperis said, Mercury Clean Up will take its clean mining method to the broader market where demand for it is great. Already, the joint venture has been approached and visited by international officials interested in using the technology. Additionally, 113 countries signed the multi-lateral environmental agreement, Minamata Convention on Mercury, thereby committing to helping reduce global mercury pollution over the coming decades.
Comstock Mining also is pursuing applying the cleantech approach to decontaminating and extracting precious metals from contaminated leach pads (ponds where metals are dissolved from ore), tailings (the remaining waste after metal extraction from ore) and industrially contaminated water bodies.
“This will be in a much higher international profile in 2020, for sure,” De Gasperis said.
Shift Toward Automation
Nevada’s mining industry is seeing increased automation, both through software and processes and robotic technologies applied to vehicles and equipment.
This is in part because Nevada’s emerging workforce is demanding high-tech.
“One of the threats I see for the industry is that it’s becoming more and more difficult to get young professionals unless we automate the business,” Walker said. “If we don’t, we’ll very quickly become dinosaurs. There aren’t enough miners with 30-, 40-year experience who can fill [the need].”
For instance, the NMA is working with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees the safety of mine sites, to ensure the required safety environment is in place to start pilot projects with fully autonomous vehicles, said Bennett.
Already, partially autonomous vehicles are being used in the field, by Nevada Gold Mines, for instance, at some of its mines. Prior to the joint venture, Barrick Gold Corp. led the state in launching a pilot program using autonomous haul trucks for surface use, at its South Arturo project in Elko County, and Nevada Gold Mines now employs them at Goldstrike in Eureka County as well. They’re consistent, running around the clock every day.
Also at Goldstrike and Cortez in Lander and Eureka counties, Nevada Gold Mines uses automated underground loaders whose operator controls them from the surface using a joystick and a sensors-equipped remote control camera.
“By removing the operator completely, in effect taking them out of the underground, the person is completely separate from risk and hazard,” Walker said, referring to the potential for accidents involving mobile mining equipment, which can cause serious injuries and fatalities. “It allows us to have people not exposed to the noise, dust and fumes.”
Nevada Gold Mines also employs three autonomous Pit Vipers, open-pit drill rigs, at its Phoenix mine in Lander County, which drill according to a computerized pattern. One operator, in charge of all three, watches them on screens in a control room, a safe environment far from the actual rigs, to ensure they’re running as they should.
Automation also comes via the use of sensor systems in many applications. They include monitoring fatigue among operators, monitoring miners’ proximity to mobile mining equipment and monitoring vehicle tires for optimal performance and providing alerts when necessary.
From a Legal Perspective
In terms of mining-related transactions, Bordelon said, most activity in Nevada recently has been the formation of joint ventures, which are part of a broader trend of industry consolidation in the state and globally.
Nevada Gold Mines, created earlier this year by Barrick, which owns 61.5 percent, and Newmont Goldcorp, with a 38.5 percent stake, is an example. The three-month-old entity encompasses eight Nevada mines and their infrastructure and processing facilities at its Cortez, Goldstrike, Carlin, Turquoise Ridge, Twin Creeks, Phoenix and Long Canyon properties.
The company currently is concentrating on two expansion projects: Goldrush, its main project for which a pre-feasibility study is expected by 2020, and Robertson, both in Lander County. In terms of exploration, it has one major project, McCoy Cove, also in Lander, and various extensions to existing operations, or brownfields operations.
Nevada Gold Mines allows Barrick and Newmont Goldcorp to combine their strengths and capitalize on the resulting synergies, including about $4.7 billion in cost savings over the next 10 years. One benefit is the ability to keep facilities operating that otherwise would be closed. Nevada Gold Mines is keeping Newmont Goldcorp’s Carlin mill flotation circuit open by transferring ore from Barrick’s Goldstrike mine to it.
In another example, Comstock Mining partnered with Tonogold Resources Inc. to process the ore from the Lucerne mine, an asset Tonogold is acquiring from Comstock later this year, with plans for bringing it back into production, De Gasperis said.
Ongoing legal issues for the Silver State’s mining companies when they’re planning a new or an expansion operation pertain to the often-fluid requirements regarding water claims, endangered species such as sage-grouse, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
“You can’t get very far digging in the dirt in federal lands without encountering environmental issues,” Bordelon said, referring to the fact that the BLM owns and manages most of Nevada’s land.
Down the Line
Regarding the future of technology for the mining industry, it will continue to advance, evolve and become increasingly relevant for safety and efficiency, Walker said. Technology will continue changing the makeup of the workforce needed to do the jobs.
“I see the roles changing from the perspective that there’ll be, as we go through time, less physical, hands-on roles and more technical value-add roles,” he added.
As for Nevada’s mining industry overall, Bennet said she expects it will maintain its solid footing in the near future. This is particularly the case since the state and the country will rely on mining to produce all the metals and minerals needed for emerging sectors such as renewable energy and advanced manufacturing and for meeting their clean energy goals.
“That’s great news for Nevada’s mining industry,” she said. “I’m looking forward to another strong 12 months.”