SUPERIOR, Ariz.—One of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits sits 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface. It is a lode that operator Rio Tinto RIO 2.11% PLC wouldn’t have touched—until now.
Not that long ago, anabundance of high-grade copper could be mined out of shallower openpits. But as those deposits are depleted and high-grade copper becomestougher to find, firms such as Rio have been compelled to mine deeperunderground.
Advances in mining technology are making that possible—just as developments in oil and gas drilling heralded the fracking revolution. Now, using everything from sensors and data analytics to autonomous vehicles and climate-control systems, Rio aims to pull ore from more than a mile below ground, where temperatures can reach nearly 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
A 15-minute elevator ride 6,943 feet down Resolution’s No. 10 mine shaft leads to a dimly lighted cavern where warm water falls from the rocks like rain. Electrical gear buzzes constantly, and a network of pipes pumps water out of the shaft at the rate of 600 gallons a minute. A ventilation system cools the area to 77 degrees.
Over the next few years, Rio plans to deploy tens of thousands of electronic sensors, as well as autonomous vehicles and complex ventilation systems, to help it bring 1.6 billion tons of ore to the surface over the more than 40-year projected life of the mine.
Data coming from those sensors will be fed into analytics engines that will help monitor tasks ranging from underground blasts to the movement of autonomous vehicles.
Rio hopes analytics will help to break down organizational silos. Rather than one person viewing data about a specific part of the mining process, information from across the mine can be sent to a single place where experts can obtain a more holistic view of operations.
“It is taking a lot of the decision-making out of the hands of the operator and putting it into a group of specialists who can manage the whole system,” Mr. Stegman said. ..