New underground positioning technology improves safety in mines – experiments in Pyhäsalmi mine are part of a project improving mine technology by an AI platform

In the EU-funded Goldeneye project, a new artificial intelligence platform is being developed to improve the safety and profitability of mines. Experiments were conducted in Pyhäsalmi mine, Pyhäjärvi, Finland in August-September 2022 on how remote mapping data produced by satellites, sensor data measured by drones and data recorded in mining areas can be combined in an underground mining environment. GPS-guided drones have not been used inside mines before. The results of the trials are promising.
kypäräpäinen mies testaa GPS-laitetta
Testing replicated GPS underground in Pyhäjärvi Callio, Pyhäsalmi mine. Photo: Julia Puputti.

The unique digital platform implemented in the project of 17 European research and business partners, led by VTT and funded by the EU's Horizon2020, is a combination of remote sensing and positioning technologies. It integrates data collected from satellites, drones and terrestrial sensors. It utilizes Earth observation and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems) data as well as data fusion and processing based on data analytics and machine learning algorithms. Collected information can be processed and converted into applicable artificial intelligence, which enables comprehensive monitoring of mines and their effects. This, in turn, enables more efficient exploration and mining, while promoting safety in mines. The project has progressed to the stage where the platform has been launched and the field tests are finished. We can now look at the results.

Pyhäjärvi's piloting was carried out in cooperation with the Pyhäsalmi mine (data and infrastructure), Pyhäjärvi's Callio mine reuse (facilities and services) and the University of Oulu's interdisciplinary Callio Lab research environment (facilitation, research).

The simulated GPS system works underground

For example, the GPS location data used in Google Maps navigators has not previously been possible to use underground. Drones also use the GPS signal to stay in flight. Now it was tested whether it is possible to fly drones underground using simulated signals. The technology was also tested on cell phones.

"GPS location information is not available in underground mines, because there is rock through which the signal does not come. Now we can get the coordinates underground. It has technology developed by the Israeli Galileo Satellite Navigation, which enables GPS to be replicated underground. All the GPS applications you already have on your mobile phone work normally," explained Marko Paavola, the project leader and VTT's specialist researcher.

Paavola was very satisfied with the results of the tests conducted in Pyhäsalmi.

"The results are very good at this stage. The demonstrator has been completed and reports compiled. It took only a week to have the demonstrator to work", he praised.

New possibilities for drone work

The drone was flown by the drone pilot - field operators Lauri Maalismaa and Tuomas Koivurova from Radai Ltd.

"It was very interesting. I have never flown an RC model underground before. The plane messed up somewhere near the tunnel and went into the wall, but the same plane flew a couple of battery-powered flights after that. There was nothing wrong with the machine itself. Probably, Finland's, if not the world's, depth record was set in how deep underground the drone was flown, i.e. about 400 meters below the ground. Not officially, but unofficially," Maalismaa said.

The pilots were impressed by the uniqueness of the test situation.

"This was the first flight where we attempted to keep the location of a moving device solely with the GPS underground. And it seemed to be a very viable technology to use. Even with this small demonstration, you can say that this positioning technology seems to work. We already had a very interesting conversation with this company that brought this GPS system here. They were very familiar with drone electronics”, Koivurova said.

Israeli positioning technology

The positioning technology that was used at the Pyhäsalmi mine has had a patent since 2010, but in its current form it has been in operation for a year. GNSS, Global Navigation Satellite Systems, is an umbrella term for all world-wide deployed systems, the US developed GPS and European developed Galileo being some of them. The technology has been used in many places, from bus stations to shopping malls. Now the technology was tried for the first time in a mine.

"It took us one week to adapt the technology to these conditions. We got all the stages put on the map and tried the flight. It went really well," said Eli Ariel, CEO of Galileo Satellite Navigation.

The technology was built by research and development manager Sergey Tomilin.

“This was a very different environment for us because normally we have some kind of connection to the sky. Even if we don't have GPS, we have satellite signals. There is total radio silence in the mine. There were some challenges, but we worked through them. We realized that we could have had more equipment and supplies with us. If something doesn't work, we can't get them here from the office. Usually the device stops working when you least expect it," Tomilin said.

Ariel and Tomilin first found out what kind of operating logic there is in the mine and what is important to locate there.

"We don't have mines in Israel, so we weren't familiar with their operating logic. It was good that we met earlier in Sofia with Marko Paavola. We began to understand our partners more and they began to understand us," Ariel said.

Ariel and Tomilin think that customer understanding is very important so that the technology truly meets the customer's needs.

"If we don't go to the customer and ask about their needs, we can't modify the technology for them. The same idea applies to this project," said Tomilin.

"The challenges are different in different places. At a bus station or airport, the user needs to find the right place at the right time, even in a foreign language. At the expo center, on the other hand, the visitor wants to find the stands where he is going. There are challenges in positioning technology at the bus station, because there are many levels. For example, rescue personnel need accurate positioning of where the person in need of help is. We are also going to Amsterdam Expo, where each event has its own map. You can't use wifi there because it goes down easily. Our technology can solve the problem,” continued Ariel.

The development of location information improves safety and asset management

Paavola especially highlights two important benefits that the new underground positioning technology can produce.

"First there are the security issues. For example, the location of people in the mine can be located through safety applications. Improving Asset Management is another important result. In mines, there can be considerable losses, for example, because equipment and goods are lost or misplaced," Paavola said.

"There is a local area network in that area. If telephone network applications ever come, then it will be possible to share the location of an employee or a device or, for example, a cable reel," continued Ossi Kotavaara, Research Director of the University of Oulu's Kerttu Saalasti Institute from the Regional Excellence Research Group.

The technology is suitable for multiple purposes

When the flying of the drones was found to be successful, a systematic test setup was made, which different test groups have been able to try out. As a result of these tests, the technology can end up with very different purposes.

"An important goal in this project is to put the results into use. That's why we already contact potential end users during the project and ask for feedback. We have to think about what the needs are in industry and how they can be met," said Paavola.

"The goal is to make user-oriented final products based on these tests. There are many different users, test groups and visitors, and they can take advantage of the GPS system in their own activities," Kotavaara continued.

Jani Kaartinen, manager of Metso Outotec's intelligent products and processes, participated in the on a study trip.

"We are not actually business partners in this particular project, but we have cooperated a lot in the past in various projects funded by Business Finland and the EU. Even though we don't operate underground, there could be technology here that we could use, for example, for positioning under the roof of an above-ground refinery. We talked with the Israeli company about the positioning accuracy of the technology, which interests us from the point of view of possible further use. Possibly it can be used together with some other, for example, fixed sensor technology", envisions Kaartinen.

The tests also show the compatibility possibilities of other applications with the piloted technology.

"We tried this through our own mobile phones. There are a lot of ready-made applications that can work here," Kotavaara said.

A functional business model is needed for the commercial exploitation of technology

In order to commercially utilize the platform created in the project, a jointly planned business model is needed.

"We have to find the potential for commercialization and utilization. We figure out business models for selling products. When there are many actors and a platform like this, where data and solutions are delivered, then of course the business model has to be agreed upon. The architecture has basically been implemented in such a way that it is possible to work together or separately. For example, this GPS platform that has just been tested is a commercial product of an Israeli company, whose development path has only just started to accelerate. We will find out the utilization routes of all the technologies developed in the project and report them in the final report," said Paavola.

When commercialization is in concern, the platform is made as easy to use as possible so that no separate analytics expertise is needed within the company.

"The goal is for mining operators to be able to use these applications in natural language. That is, the user does not need to know anything about satellites or big data analytics or artificial intelligence. All he has to do is say “show me the location” and the app will show it together with existing data sets. Algorithms run there in the background," said Paavola.

Globally significant development work

The project will also improve the analysis of mine area mineralogy using geophysical sensors integrated into drones and innovative proximity sensors such as active hyperspectral sensor technology and real-time Raman spectroscopy. The platform integrates data from images and surveys from available satellites, such as the Copernicus and Sentinel systems, as well as global satellites.

"We are also investigating synthetic aperture radar for monitoring mining environments. In addition, we conduct two tests of satellite-based assessment of water quality and metal concentrations. It utilizes multi-channel analysis of a few satellites. Our partner DARES TECHNOLOGY implements this analysis," Kotavaara said.

The platform being developed in Goldeneye, which connects many data sources, does not yet exist anywhere. It is a potentially globally significant technology that saves a lot of resources in ore exploration, monitoring the safety and environment of mining environments, production (for example, blasting planning) and even reporting results (amount of ore mined).

"It clearly reduces costs when you can use satellites to see where it is worth going to look for that ore. And then drones can be used to find out what could be a good place, which saves a lot of time," Paavola said.

The possibilities of scaling the results are very likely.

"If a solution can be implemented in remote sensing, and it can be validated in the environments of the pilot areas, then in practice it is a global solution, where the same analytics can be used without going on site. At least if the conditions are similar. This can be verified with the help of the samples collected for the calibration of the method. And if remote sensing in measuring water quality works in the Pyhäsalmi mine and in natural waters, it is interesting to see if it can be extended to the entire northern hemisphere. If a sampler goes and takes a water sample from one point and it is possible to scan thousands of square kilometers at once with analytics, then it opens up completely new possibilities", envisions Kotavaara.

Very interesting accidental discoveries can also occur when experimenting with new technology.

"We had an interesting demo effect here: in connection with our pilot, we also found one volcano that has not been found in the terrain before. We were able to combine data from several satellites here. We immediately got to see if there was anything valuable," Paavola said.

Five pilot sites in different parts of Europe – in Finland, a pilot is being conducted in the Pyhäjärvi Callio reuse infrastructure at the Pyhäsalmi mine

During the project, the Goldeneye platform will be piloted in five mining areas across Europe; In Finland, Germany, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Romania. At the Pyhäsalmi mine in Finland, the focus is on research into the environmental effects and stability of mines and the development of safety in underground mines by enabling even more precise monitoring. The Pyhäsalmi mine is the only one as a test site for both underground positioning and above-ground tests. Terrestrial experiments on the utilization of satellite data are also being conducted in Pyhäsalmi.

In the Trepča mining complex in Kosovo, the same type of experiments as in Pyhäsalmi are conducted. The pilot mines in Germany and Bulgaria, on the other hand, focus on mineralogical mapping and the development of mineral exploration with high-resolution imaging. In Romania the goal is to increase the profitability of mining operations and support the region's mining community by refining mineral forecasts.

The infrastructure of the Pyhäsalmi mine, the Pyhäjärven Callio working on the mine re-use and cresting piloting opportunities, and the interdisciplinary Callio Lab research environment of the University of Oulu in cooperation created the possibility for the implementation of underground pilots. Sakari Nokela, development director of Pyhäjärvi Callio, sees that in the mining industry, as in other industrial plants, a lot of remote control and positioning is used and piloted today, which requires a very short delay, accurate data collection of the location of people and machines, and flexible group communication solutions according to needs.

"Positioning technologies will be needed in the future, for example, for real-time situational awareness and traffic control in Pyhäsalmi mine on test tracks. In addition, development efforts are needed regarding Pyhäjärvi Callio's support services in digital services such as training mining machine operators, also remotely. For example, a drone flying in tunnels increases safety, improves the accuracy of collected data and makes working in challenging conditions more cost-effective. The robot does not shy away from dangerous maintenance or maintenance tasks - accurate and up-to-date positioning can improve efficiency, for example, in various first aid and rescue tasks." Nokela states.

The University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute and its multidisciplinary research group Regional Excellence (REx) host and support the planning and implementation of field experiments at the Pyhäsalmi mine. Field trials are organized in an underground mine, open pits and a tailings area. The REx research group also participates in the evaluation and scientific reporting of tested techniques and results.

The duration of the Goldeneye project is three years and EU funding is €8.35 million. The Goldeneye consortium includes a large industrial partner, seven SMEs, four academic/research centers and four end users. Support is also provided by the strong Geosciences Expert Council. The project is coordinated by the Finnish VTT.

Consortium partners:

Beak Consultants, AKG SHPK, Cuprumin, Dares Technologies, Earth observing system, Galileo Satellite Navigation, OPT/NET, Radai, Sandvik Mining and Construction, Sinergise, Sitemark, Technical University of Cluj-Napoca, Timegate Instruments, University of Oulu and University of Sofia.

Writer: Minna Kilpeläinen, communication specialist, Oulu University Kerttu Saalasti Institute