Coal India Limited witnessed 29 workplace fatalities in 2021 and 20 more deaths the following year. Across India, there were nine fatal mining accidents in 2020, each claiming 30 lives on average; additionally there were 97 serious accidents that year.

Underground mining operations face unique challenges due to the harsh environment and rough terrain. Traditional communication systems often fail to deliver timely information from the surface to underground workstations. Now, the Internet of Things (IoT) technology promises to fill this gap.

Researchers Ankit Singh and Prof Dheeraj Kumar of the department of mining engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Dhanbad, have mooted the idea of using IoT to develop an underground mining support system they call ‘Smart-SAGES (self-advancing goaf edge support)’.

Their study suggests that IoT sensors can facilitate real-time communication, enabling quick response to hazardous situations.

The IoT sensors can continually monitor environmental factors like temperature, humidity, and toxic gases. Additionally, IoT facilitates remote monitoring of mining operations, including machine health, maintenance, drilling intelligence, and roof convergence.

The ability to take quick decisions can avert strata control problems and environmental hazards, thus ensuring the safety of mine personnel and costly machinery, their study paper says.

Prof Kumar, who is the Deputy Director of IIT-Dhanbad, says the system can instantly alert mining managers whenever any safety aspect is compromised.

Resources can be allocated optimally, minimising errors and maximising operational efficiency, leading to energy and cost savings.

Moreover, the data collected by IoT nodes can enable predictive maintenance and timely repairs, averting breakdown of equipment.

Security concerns

The study also highlights the potential risks associated with IoT use in underground mines such as information disclosure and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks that can disrupt operations and endanger workers’ lives. The study proposes a taxonomy of security challenges and a security-by-design approach.

To prevent data leakage, the communication channel must have multi-layers of security through encryption and decryption, as also blockchain technology to curb cyber-attacks and secure data transmission and storage.

Environmental worry

Underground mines are dynamic environments, where the infrastructure is constantly relocated, accompanied by temporary disturbances such as land movements and their potential ecological impact.

Kumar says the use of electricity to run IoT devices may spark underground explosion when it comes in contact with oxygen or other subterranean gases.

On the plus side, IoT can help detect unstable dumps or other landslide-prone areas, promoting sustainable mining practices.