Laser technology developed by GlassTerra is keeping a close and continuous eye on mining infrastructure and operations, particularly around tailings dams, to improve safety, environmental outcomes, compliance and productivity.
Tailings storage facilities are an essential part of mining operations. The enormous embankment dams are used to store billions of tonnes of often toxic waste produced each year through the mining and refining process. But if they fail, the impact can be catastrophic.
In 2019, in one of the worst tailings dam disasters ever, 270 people lost their lives when a waste storage facility at an iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, collapsed. A torrent of 12 million cubic metres of mud and slurry swept through the mine’s offices and cafeteria, and into surrounding farms, as well as into a major river. This was just one of at least 70 tailings dam failures recorded since 2000 – disasters responsible for loss of life and significant contamination of the environment. ^1
As a former chief executive of RPMGlobal, a mining software and consultancy firm with 500 employees and offices in 12 countries, Christian Larsen was all too aware of the issue.
He co-founded GlassTerra in 2014 to advance technology around the surveillance of earthworks in mining operations to help maintain structural integrity and mitigate risk around infrastructure, including tailings dams.
In 2015 the start-up received an Accelerating Commercialisation grant under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. The grant totalling $250,000 helped to commercialise software that displays geological and geographic data neatly online, enabling mine operators to monitor a range of operations in real time.
Through that process, Larsen realised that the hardware used to measure the structural integrity and movement of earthworks in the first place could also be improved.
“We discovered a huge gap. There was high-precision intermittent surveying and low-precision real-time monitoring, but there was no high-precision real-time capability,” he says. “So we decided to fill that gap. And to do that we went from developing software to hardware.”
CCTV for dirt
Enlisting the capabilities of laser technology and with the support of a second Accelerating Commercialisation grant, he set to work, employing a mechatronics engineer to help the small GlassTerra team build a novel precision measuring tool.
The resulting IoT (Internet of Things) LiDAR monitoring technology is state-of-the-art hardware that uses laser beams to map the environment in three-dimensional high resolution, recording small shifts in soil structure in real time. (LiDAR, an acronym for light detection and ranging, is a remote-sensing method used in a range of applications including meteorology and autonomous vehicles).
“I think of it as CCTV for dirt,” says Larsen, who used IoT in the product’s name as a reference to the tool’s online connectivity.
The portable, compact IoT LiDAR consists of a sensor as small as a coffee cup providing real-time laser surveillance of 2000 square metres of terrain.
Attached to this is an ‘edge computer’ that filters out extraneous movement. This means that ‘environmental noise’ such as dust, rain, machinery, people and even goats – “all things we have had to deal with in our trials” – do not contaminate the picture, Larsen says.
Devices can be used individually or configured in an array, across mining operations and tailings dams, providing a continuous view of complex terrain or earthworks and alerting operators to any displacement or unplanned movement.
“They’re each looking at a piece of ground, but the collage of those views is what the customer ultimately sees,” Larsen says. “And if your tailings dam wall moves, you want to know as soon as possible so you can do something about it.”
Safe fine-scale surveillance
Larsen explains that data from the device is fed into cloud-based software and viewed via a user-friendly phone, tablet or computer interface that allows mining personnel to see the exact status of earthworks at all times from anywhere.
While it has capability to operate around the clock, the IoT LiDAR can also be used to augment existing technology, he says. This includes satellite surveillance which covers entire facilities but is less precise and limited to when the satellite passes overhead.
Australian and international regulations require that a specific site must be inspected when unplanned movement is detected. And this is where the IoT LiDAR can play an important role undertaking finer-scale investigation while saving people from entering a potentially hazardous environment. “Once you’ve determined movement at broad scale, then our device brings it into focus without having to put people in there,” Larsen says.
The IoT LiDAR is also less expensive than alternatives and can be assembled quickly and easily ‘out of the box’ onsite. This ‘plug and play’ innovation was fast-tracked as a consequence of COVID-19 and enabled by the Accelerating Commercialisation service, he says.
Adapting to market conditions
Larsen recalls that when the pandemic shut international borders, it prevented planned onsite trials with a mining company in Ghana from going ahead – trials that required GlassTerra technicians to set up the device.
“We had to suddenly move from a method where we would personally take the device to a site, demonstrate it and install it, and instead ship it alone and have our customer self-install it,” he says.
A redesign was required, and Larsen says the second Accelerating Commercialisation grant of $420,000 provided the means to make the necessary changes for the trials to continue.
“Without this grant we wouldn’t have had the resources to adjust to the changing market conditions,” he says. “It allowed us to change the direction of the commercialisation process.”
Larsen says it helped that their Accelerating Commercialisation Facilitator, Andrew Miller from i4 Connect, had experience in mechanical engineering and the mining industry and therefore appreciated the need to tweak the approach. “He understood the context and why we had to take it in a different direction,” he says.
Miller, who also provided GlassTerra with industry contacts and referrals, says the leading-edge technology has a clear value proposition around safety, and has impressed investors with its ESG (environmental, social and governance) credentials.
It also has broader applications including for real-time measurements of stockpiles and the movement of materials.
Larsen says that while the IoT LiDAR can be used for productivity gains, the initial focus in the market has been on safety applications. “It turns out that the life-saving aspect has taken precedence over its money-saving capabilities. So that’s where all the action is for us,” he says.
In the future, the technology also has wider applications beyond mining, including in the construction industry and monitoring disused mine shafts earmarked for potential solar power storage.
But for now, GlassTerra is focusing on its primary mining market. It has its keystone client and demonstrator site in Ghana in place and, after weathering supply chain hold-ups for computer chips, is now signing new contracts.
“There’s a lot of potential but right at the moment we’re focusing on the areas that we know and the people we know,” Larsen says.