The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated sustainability and technology trends in the mining sector and companies must reform R&D and management processes to turn this crisis into opportunity, attendees heard at "The new normal for the mining industry", a webinar presented by digital consultancy Axora.
"The technology is already here now, we don't need lengthy R&D processes," said Pat Lowery, former technical director at De Beers. "We must rapidly optimise our sites to deal with the long-term ‘C-19' impacts and build a sustainable base for future operations using technology".
The potential for rapid adoption was underlined by examples of companies rapidly switching over to new technology and processes, said Lowery.
He pointed to BHP's development of an employee COVID-19 tracing app in Chile that tracked staff movements, while complying to privacy standards, and alerted management to potentially infected areas.
"Perhaps [UK secretary for health] Matt Hancock should look at the speed in which the BHP CIO implemented that," he joked.
The range of remote management technology on show at Resolute's Syama mine in Mali, the world's first fully autonomous facility, "came into its own" in this crisis, added Lowery.
"The Syama site can expect a lot of industrial tourism in the coming months as people start to understand how successfully this project was able to bring together not just automated mining trucks and drills, but also integrate that with remote control and management centres, and overlay it all with suites of analytical and optimisation tools."
The operations of Sociedad Punta del Cobre (Pucobre) in Chile, located in the remote Atacama desert, have also implemented a stock check tool that can remotely monitor levels of critical site materials. The software assesses country of origin for a given tool, and automatically evaluates local alternatives and stock levels of local distributors.
"The digital transformation was already a growth area in mining, and companies will be re-assessing their operation and investment strategies right down to root and branch," said Lowery. "There will be an increase in collaboration and knowledge sharing among industry leaders, governments and all stakeholders."
Operationally, firms need to ensure worker safety for the long-term, given the risk of second waves of the pandemic, while de-risking operations and implementing rapid recovery systems.
"The key to success is going to be our frontline supervisors and frontline managers on the operational sites. We need to be 100% sure that we are putting in the necessary training to inform and help them for a world that nobody is accustomed to," he added.
The speakers noted that the mining sector could be commended for its initial response to the pandemic at sites in South Africa and Chile, not just on prioritising worker safety measures but also supporting at-risk communities in those countries through the creation of field hospitals and testing facilities.
However, the crisis should also be used as a chance to deepen engagement with communities and governments.
"This has escalated the need for a sustainable mining sector. The pandemic has forced community and social issues to be prioritised above economic concerns," said Lowery.
"I feel the responsible partnerships we have with government, which to be honest in many jurisdictions can be best described as antagonistic, need to change as here we have in the virus a common enemy. This virus the catalyst to turn these into true partnerships"