Heaven and Earth: satellite technology to support responsible mining

Industry specialists discuss current and future innovation during MineSense virtual event

By Mark Swift

29/12/2020

Satellite technology has the potential to have a major impact on social challenges in the mining industry. From monitoring environmental factors to safeguarding against illegal unlicenced projects, space-based technologies offer new tools to build trust in extractive industries.

When mining projects start, they can lead to significant demographic shifts within the local area, as workers are brought in to tackle digging or factory operations. Equally, the economic context can be drastically altered when major industrial work takes off in previously undeveloped areas.

While this can bring new pockets of wealth to a region, it can also create problems or imbalances, or lead to social and geographic divisions within communities.

The mining sector has a lot of responsibility to make sure that the indigenous and local people around mining and exploration projects are treated with respect, and that their needs are met, according to Alice Bird, of the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Trust is extremely important, Bird explained.

Not only can poor management of social issues harm local quality of life, but it can also bring mining operations head-to-head with the burdensome challenge of community opposition.

“Trust isn’t there at the start of a project,” said Alexandra Mitchell, senior environmental and social specialist at Wardell Armstrong, an environmental and mining consultancy group. No mining company arrives and instantly has the trust of communities, she added, and this makes trust building incredibly important.

“If a community don’t trust or completely lose that acceptance of the project, it can cause billion-dollar projects to halt,” Mitchell explained

Licence to operate is consistently rated as the number one source of risk for mining operations, she said, drawing attention to research by Ernst and Young.

Opposition to planning can even emerge prior to a project going ahead, due to uncertainty about the nature, duration, or scale of the prospective operations. Without clear transparency, local communities are often uncomfortable with the prospect of ceding control of their social and physical environment, she said.

What can satellites do to help?

Satellite technologies can be used to create trust and transparency for communities affected by mining projects.

They do this by supporting social engagement through monitoring and gathering data about the mine site. This can then help make information a lot more transparent for local people, stakeholders, and investors, explained Alice Bird.

Using InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) — a satellite-based technique — to build digital terrain models, companies can give communities much clearer understanding of the scale and shape of a planned project, prior to extraction operations starting, Bird said.

AI can also be used in conjunction with satellite imagery to monitor infrastructure and changes in environmental factors, river flows, forestry, even changes in housing, Bird explained.

“Using AI and machine learning, this could all be automatically detected using up-to-date techniques,” she said.

Future technology

In the future, a single consolidated platform of reliable and regularly updated mining and environmental information could enable interagency coordination and strategic decision making, Bird suggested. This could cover mining activity monitoring, dataset access and overlap, and areas of interest and alert.

Such a platform could use land cover classification, mining licence related datasets, InSAR imagery change detection, and historic instances of illegal mining — as part of one powerful solution.

It remains to be seen when international cooperation can bring about such a platform, but if it were to happen, it could drastically reduce many of the harmful dimensions of the mining sector.

The Satellite Applications Catapult, European Space Agency, and United Nations Crime Institute (UNICRI) together established the MineSense group to provide a communication platform for stakeholders in the mining and space industries to collaborate and solve problems.

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