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Tech key in Fortescue’s hunt for ore

Reuters, PORT HEDLAND, Australia

A Komatsu truck being retrofitted with driverless Caterpillar Autohaul technology, is pictured on Thursday in a shed at Fortescue Metals Group’s Chichester hub for iron ore mining operations in Australia.

Photo: Reuters

Australian miner Fortescue Metals Group this week said the latest developments in satellite imagery are helping it scour vast swathes of its own backyard for new deposits, seeking an edge as it jostles with global peers for the next big strike.

The world’s fourth-largest iron ore miner raised its exploration rights in South Australia by one-third this year, data compiled from the state government by McMahon Mining Title Services Pty Ltd showed.

While Fortescue’s principal focus is on iron ore in the resource-rich Pilbara region, its increased exploration rights in South Australia add to holdings in New South Wales and Western Australia as it looks to diversify into copper, gold and lithium in competition with larger peers Rio Tinto Group and BHP Group.

“We have always been active at looking at [mining] tenements … that’s how we’ve managed to get to the position where we are the largest tenement holder in the Pilbara,” chief executive officer Elizabeth Gaines told reporters during a tour of Fortescue facilities in Port Hedland, Western Australia, this week.

In a move that illustrates how miners are harnessing big data to improve their prospects of finding the next mother lode, Fortescue is tapping satellite imagery to more accurately map potential minerals and better target expensive drilling.

“There have been developments in exploration techniques, certainly in the use of satellite imagery and other types of imagery,” Gaines said.

Fortescue, which also has exploration rights in Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina, plans to spend US$100 million on exploration next year, well up from US$67 million this year.

It is not alone: Global miners have begun to pump up exploration spending to top up supplies and BHP, for example, has a US$900 million budget for exploration.

BHP earlier this week said that it had found a rich copper and gold deposit 65km to the southeast of its Olympic Dam copper operations in South Australia.

Meanwhile, in the past 12 months Rio Tinto has boosted its exploration holdings 10-fold in Paterson, a remote area in Western Australia, where Fortescue is the second-largest rights holder.

Fortescue also has 5,300km2 of holdings in Paterson, 10,000km2 in South Australia and 2,000km2 in New South Wales, company and government data showed.

The company said it is also trialling new technologies that it could eventually turn to exploration, such as deploying probes down drill holes that allow for real-time assessment of finds and help it define the richest seams to mine.

It is also spending more on data gathering and analysis.

“We generate a lot of data in the mining industry,” said Gerhard Veldsman, executive general manager of the miner’s Pilbara Operations. “We need to start to harness that and turn it into information we can use.”

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