30 years of METS sector transformation: Exploration

Dr Michelle Carey – General Manager – IMDEX Product Development looks back on the last 30 years in changes of mineral exploration procedures and the challenges of the future.

Looking back 30 years, how vastly different was exploration procedures to now and what have been the major changes?

There have been a vast range of changes and even within our traditional core business of downhole surveying and core orientation, procedures have certainly advanced.

At IMDEX we introduced the first digital survey tool – the REFELX EZ-SHOT™ – to the market in the late 1990s to replace analogue photographic tools. We then progressed to digital magnetic-based tools such as our REFLEX EZ-TRAC™. Each of these represented step change improvements in ease of use and ability to check the quality of the data being produced.

Now our focus is on delivering a wider range of gyros to meet the needs of clients – including continuous mode north-seeking gyros, which are considerably more accurate and faster.

The key advancement behind all of this, was enabling drillers to use high-end tools with confidence and removing the need to rely on survey providers, which incurred additional costs and often time delays for projects.

Geologists also have access to all the data collected by a survey tool in real time now, so they can check the quality and critically, make decisions about whether the hole is still on target.

It’s not just survey tools that drillers are operating now, we have taken the same approach with petrophysical sensors – for example the REFLEX EZ-GAMMA™ – which allows geologies to obtain rock property data at the completion of each drill hole.

With core orientation it used to involve ‘spearing’ – which literally meant dropping a spear down the hole to make a mark on top of the drill core to assist with its orientation. As you can imagine, this process was very unreliable. Often the spear didn’t make it to the bottom of the hole, or it didn’t leave a mark. Fortunately, this process was superseded by mechanical downhole orientation systems such as the Ballmark and Ezymark.

IMDEX introduced its first digital core orientation tool – the REFLEX ACT™ – in 2004. This was considered to be a revolutionary tool, as it made orientation so easy that it became a much more widely adopted practice for the industry. The shift to digital also allows an audit trail on the quality of the orientation mark.

Other examples of progress include a shift to paperless documentation and sumpless drilling.

It was common to see boxes and boxes of pre-ordered carbon books on site for all the documentation required around the rig. Nowadays crews are using software such as IMDEX Mobile™ for paperless data collection and productivity reporting. In additional to eliminating the cumbersome boxes, the benefits include real-time access to data they can trust by a wider range of stakeholders and critical decision makers.

Similarly, earthen fluid sumps on site are becoming a thing of the past. The adoption of solids removal units (SRUs) is increasing due to environmental concerns and challenges associated with the social licence to operate.

Our AMC Ultra Lightweight Solids Removal Unit™ is a completely closed-loop system. This means it substantially decreases the volume of water and mud required, minimises site disturbance and creates a safer work environment. The unit can even be coupled with the IMDEX MUD AID™, a remotely monitored, in-field mud testing unit, designed to optimise and automate fluid management.

The drilling fluids themselves have become a lot more sophisticated. Historically we were largely limited to bentonite, now there is a range of products and customised fluid systems that support drilling in difficult ground conditions and enable better core recovery.
The list could go on. What is also noteworthy and very pleasing, is that our operations are getting a lot safer.

Were there any key innovations or technologies that were particularly game-changing for the industry over this time?

In my mind, the most game-changing innovation has been the digitisation of the exploration cycle, which has dramatically improved the availability, accuracy and timeliness of data for critical decision making.

An example of this digitisation is the development of portable XRF on-site assays and how that has been incorporated into work flows that allow geologists to look at chemistry data they can trust in real-time.

Similarly, the availably of analytical software – for example IMDEX ioGAS™ – to allow any geologist to interpret large amounts of data using quite sophisticated methodology from classification diagrams to cluster analysis to Self-Organising maps.

Rounding out the digitisation story is the move to 3D and the trend that we are seeing now that sensors and software are all joining up into systems enabling geologists to monitor progress of their programs in 3D and no doubt soon enough go from data to 3D modelling in a semi-automated way. Our relationship with Seequent and recent joint releases is a step along that path.

One thing that hasn’t changed a lot over the past 30 years is the drilling itself – although all of this is about to change with the release of our new drilling productivity technologies!

Looking at the current landscape, how have Australian METS innovated to better service customers?

Innovations by Australian METS companies have certainly made exploration more successful over the last 30 years. A really pleasing trend now is the push towards greater collaboration to achieve the best outcomes for clients. Our own recent examples include collaboration with MICROMINE, Seequent and acQuire Technology Solutions (acQuire), which mean that data from the field is seamlessly put where a geoscientist needs it.

The integration of IMDEX ioGAS™ with MICROMINE’s latest 3D modelling and mine design software enables geoscientists to directly import ioGAS (.gas) files into Micromine 2020 software to map and model geological domains.

The Seequent partnership integrates IMDEXHUB-IQ™ with Seequent’s Central software, which provides 3D visualisation of geological data in real-time and our partnership with acQuire also integrates IMDEXHUB-IQ™ with its GIM Suite. The result for clients is an integrated and automated workflow, which means less manual handling of data, improved data governance and data quality, and streamlined access to trusted results.

Australian METS should be very proud of our software innovations – we have emerged as leaders in this space.

What do you think are the 3 biggest challenges for mineral exploration as we move into the future?

In my view the three greatest challenges for mineral exploration in the future include:

1. The need to explore under ground cover and at greater depths. The easy surface ore bodies have been found and resource companies are mining their reserves fast than they are replacing them

2. Changing skillsets for geologists as there will be an increasing need for data science and analysis, rather than ‘rock licking’. This transition may be challenging for some geologist who have a real passion for field work; and

3. The social license to operate, especially in countries where there are geopolitical challenges or there is competition for vital resources such as water.

As we tackle these challenges, what are the major innovations set to disrupt exploration in the future?

If I was to predict three greatest disruptors to exploration, it would be: automation of the drilling process; low environmental impact mining, such as a move away from surface open pits; and in conjunction with that precision mining.