How we think about the processes of mineral resource discovery is typically rooted in history; images of individuals on mules, or bearing packs and picks up a steep mountain slope shape our view.  But how well do they represent the modern industry? 

If your view of exploration aligns with the image of the prospector with a pick, then you might not see the role that innovation plays to advance our ability to find economic resources. Modern discovery requires a complex and inter-related series of processes that continually feed into each other.  ‘Boots on the ground’ mapping and sampling is still fundamental to exploration, requiring technical geological expertise.  What has changed is that we now have a wide variety of tools and approaches, allowing large and diverse data sets to be collected.

The fundamental search for metals and minerals is a risky enterprise that engages a wide variety of individuals, organizations and companies, from prospectors to drillers to data scientists. In the best-case scenario, the better the target development, the greater the probability of finding an economic ore body. What role then does innovation play in mineral exploration?

Discovery trends and data demonstrate that much of the previous exploration found the ‘easy’ targets, i.e. those exposed at surface, or in areas of intensive exploitation.  The resources of the future are more likely to be deeper or hidden in areas of exotic cover.  In order to be successful in this environment, the industry is innovating, creating new tools, approaches and techniques.

Innovation occurs across our business in both technical and scientific methods and via new approaches to community engagement – addressing risks early in a project can have lasting impact”

Gavin Dirom, Geoscience BC

 What does innovation look like in mineral exploration and how can it be supported?  Is there a well-marked path to innovation? Given the complex systems required to execute exploration programs, there are many ways to innovate.  Workplace culture, community relationships, data analytics including machine learning and AI, and developing new equipment and tools may all create value for both an organization and society.  Value is typically thought of as profit as a result of discovery, however more sustainable and responsible operations also create value for communities and society.

In order to understand the nature of innovation in mineral exploration across Canada, we embarked on a study of companies and organizations that created and implemented successful projects or products.  Over 30 hours of interviews were conducted covering specific innovations as well as the nature of mineral exploration and innovation in general.  The final report includes eleven case studies that range from ‘big thinking’ collaborative research, to collection of quality field data, diamond drilling and core logging, and the use of machine learning and AI in data integration and analytics.

Each of the case studies tells a story of an innovation.  They are intentionally diverse, with the people and organizations involved based from coast to coast and representing a wide variety of organizations.  These stories highlight the importance of a variety of factors which support innovation and mineral exploration.

What we find is that there are common turns and events on the path to a successful innovation but no defined route map that takes you from ‘A to B’.  Innovation thrives in a ‘landscape’ that provides access to quality university research and people, public geoscience provided by geological surveys and other organizations, research consortia-networks, and industry partners.

Small, more agile companies and consultants operate effectively within this innovation landscape, supporting initiatives by the major companies to achieve exploration success and develop efficient operations. They are supported by funding, typically from government grants that may help reduce risk and bring in outside knowledge.

Every project faced setbacks however, that could easily (and likely many times does) derail the effort. Ultimately, carrying through to implementation and commercialization requires a champion and typically a corporate early adopter.

Within this landscape of innovation in Canada we have identified both drivers and barriers to success, and highlight ways the industry, government and academia can support a thriving system.  Canadian companies are leading in building the approach to modern exploration, stronger support to build on their technical expertise and strengths will benefit us all.

If you want to learn more about the report, check it out here: Innovation in Exploration