In today’s Exponential Investor:

  • Who’s Kevin?
  • What’s Spot?
  • Where’s the money?

“Mining is nothing more than taking big rocks, turning them into little rocks, and sometimes you cook them,” a senior mining executive told me last week at a mining conference. As we discuss in this edition of Exponential Investor, there is actually quite a lot more to mining than that.

I’m sworn to secrecy on this person’s position and company. But I can assure you ordinary folk like you and me would get a nosebleed looking up. We are talking about a top executive in a big company.

What is also relevant is where I heard this statement.

Known as IMARC (International Mining and Resources Conference), this event is not only the biggest mining conference in Australia, but also a deal-making event.

Mining executives come from all over the world to woo or be wooed. Bankers and private fund managers show up on the hunt for tiny explorer desperate for funding. Technology companies bring along the coolest gadgets to show them off…

… and thousands of speakers aren’t afraid to put forward some controversial opinions.

My pockets are stuffed with business cards and I’m brimming with ideas on where the sector is heading.

Frankly, this is exactly what I wanted. Listening to those in the industry point out what needs to be fixed is one way to get ahead of the curve.

Augmented reality makes me (!) a carburettor expert

Thanks to the pandemic, it had been a while since these many mining-related businesses had been in one room.

Much like IMARC in 2019, this year’s one was all about technology and how it can be implemented in the mining sector.

This time, companies had gone to significantly more effort just bringing a drone or two. Several companies had spent thousands of pounds shipping massive six-tonne automated trucks over to Australia this year.

One stand that was drawing a large crowd, however, was an augmented reality business. The guys at the AVR Lab were happy to let me tinker with the system, and an incredibly patient technician called Kevin talked me through, step by step, how to change a carburettor.

On the left is a screenshot from the image of my camera. Because I had no idea how to locate a carburettor, Kevin highlighted all of the pieces as we went, which I could see in my little screen under my eye. And in under a couple of minutes, and with very little mechanical experience, I had replaced the parts I needed to.

Source: Shae’s overloaded smartphone

As is the case with driverless trains and remote operations, you can see how useful this augmented reality will be for the whole mining sector. First, it will help reduce the reliance on fly in, fly out (FIFO) workers and create more of a localised workforce, which will drastically reduce costs for mining companies.

In addition, it allows for knowledge transfer. The entire mining sector doesn’t have enough young people coming up through the ranks. Augmented reality allows an older generation of mine workers to semi retire and be “on call” – so to speak – when problems that need expert help.

Out of nowhere, a Boston Dynamics four-legged machine trotted past me on the second day of IMARC. So, I did what any reasonable adult would do, and I chased it across the conference floor.

It turned out that the digital doggy had a name and was more than just a gimmick.

“Spot” as the digital dog is known, has had a rotating sensor added to the back which uses 300,000 laser points to create a “map” while it explores a mine.

Spot maps mines and saves lives

Source: Emesent; Shae’s overloaded smartphone

Spot’s purpose is to enter a mining tunnel before people do.

Spot creates a map with the lasers on its head and then the mining engineers and geologists either above ground or a few metres behind the robot can remotely assess if the tunnel is safe to enter.

An often-overlooked fact is that more than 15,000 people die in the global mining sector each year. Mining is a dangerous business and deploying robots like Spot significantly reduces the risk to human life.

The really big challenge

A digital doggy. Autonomous trucks. Augmented reality. And a list of who’s who in the mining sector.

As much as all the toys and big trucks were fun, there was a very serious element to IMARC this year.

In fact, it was something all the people in the list of “who’s who” pointed out in each panel or presentation.

Net Zero 2050 – that is the idea that, by mid-century, we are taking out as much greenhouses gas in atmosphere as we put in – is the official goal. Governments have set ambitious targets to reach this in just 30 years.

Today’s best guess is that US$50 trillion needs to be spent to meet these objectives.

While much has been said about not having enough metals to meet this transition, a key theme in all the panels was that no one has really explained how we are going to fund this transition either.

The consensus was that there is going to be a rush of money into mining once when the markets realise just how much metals and minerals we need compared to how little we currently have. Until then, we’re in waiting mode.

I have a lot more to say on that topic. Watch this space…

Until next time,

Shae Russell
Co-editor, Exponential Investor