BHP Uses Digital Technologies to Increase Mine Safety

IoT sensors, wearables, drones, and automation are helping BHP make its mines safer while improving operational efficiencies.

BHP is an Anglo-Australian multinational mining, metals and petroleum company headquartered in Australia. It is the second largest mining company in the world, with more than 80,000 employees and contractors, primarily in Australia and the Americas.

BHP has embraced technology to change the way its mines operate and to create a safer workplace for its people. Technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, drones and automation have been instrumental in helping the company achieve these goals, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safer Maintenance with IoT Sensors and Wearables

Regular maintenance is essential at mine sites in order to keep equipment, machines and the work environment safe and reliable. Due to COVID-19 travel restriction, BHP has not been able to fly people to and from its mine sites as freely as it has in the past.

As equipment still needs to be inspected, serviced and maintained, BHP provides its experts with HoloLens 2 – a head mounted computer with a see-through display – so inspections can be done remotely. The mixed reality wearable allows the experts to see what technicians at the site can see, and whenever required, send them helpful documentation, videos and schematics on the fly.

Image credit: Microsoft

BHP’s maintenance and innovation team has also developed Dash Maintainer Tools that allow front line personnel to collect data from machinery remotely. The tools use IoT sensors and industrial computers connected to Microsoft Azure cloud service, so machinery data can be automatically transferred into the smartphone or tablet of the maintenance technicians.

The first version of Dash Maintainer Tools was successfully installed in the field on a 400 ton excavator, within 16 weeks of it being an idea on a white board. The technology increases safety at the mine site as technicians are no longer required to manually check dials or take readings from heavy mobile equipment such as trucks, excavators, drills and bulldozers.

Using Drones for Safer Mining

At various mine sites in Australia, BHP uses drones to ensure areas are clear before a blast takes place at the site and to track fumes post-blast. Drones are also used to improve road safety on sites, by monitoring traffic, road conditions, and hazards. The maintenance team uses drones to inspect overhead cranes, towers, and roofs of tall buildings to avoid sending people to work at a height.

At its onshore US oil operations, BHP uses drones to inspect the flare tips of its processing plants. As flares must be operational at all times, visual inspections can only happen during a complete plant shut down for safety reason. With drones, inspections can be carried out while the plants are online.

BHP has fitted its drones with military-grade cameras to collect aerial footage and 3D maps of its sites in real time. The data is used to quickly and accurately measure stockpiles, review compliance to design against mine plans, and understand where changes are required to improve safety or boost productivity. It was reported that using drones to conduct surveys has saved BHP A$5 million a year at its sites in Queensland alone.

Image credit: Drone Below

Digital Technologies for Safer Mining

Drones for Safer Ocean Freight Operations

BHP ships more than 300 million tons of iron ore, coal and copper to global customers annually, making it one of the largest charterers of dry bulk carriers in the world.

In 2018, BHP started using drones for its ocean freight operations.

One of the applications for which drones are used is for a safer and quicker ship hold inspection process. With manual inspection, the inspector needs to climb down ladders with fall protection on, while carrying a parrot (oxygen meter) to make sure there is enough air in the hold.

But with drones, the hold can be inspected via high-resolution images that can show cracks or other specific parameters that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The use of drones has cut inspection times per hold from an hour to 15 minutes, while at the same time removing a person from a potentially hazardous situation.

BHP also uses drones to improve the safety, time and cost of ship draft readings, which is usually done from a boat when the ship is berthed and ready for cargo. 

Mining Automation

BHP has operated a fully-autonomous truck fleet at its Western Australian Jimblebar mine since 2017. The trucks are equipped with safety control devices using LiDAR, radar and GPS technologies to detect surrounding objects and for safe maneuver. Operators can interact with the trucks safely from inside the office instead of from the mine site. Since its implementation, heavy vehicle safety incidents at the site have reduced by 80 percent.

The autonomous haulage system is also used as a predictive maintenance tool that accurately predicts failures ahead of time, and optimizes asset maintenance planning.

In 2017, BHP established an Innovation Centre in Western Australia, where solutions covering the entire supply chain from geology to extraction and processing to transport have been developed, tested and deployed.

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