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The mining industry in 2016: Sensors, robots, and drones (oh my!)

It’s not easy to be in the mining industry today. The price of commodities continues to swing—despite yesterday’s stock market implosion, gold failed to gain traction, and other metals slumped in response to weakening Chinese demand. And the business grows ever more complicated as companies start operations in increasingly far-flung areas.

You think launching a blockbuster mobile app is hard? Try starting an iron ore operation in Kazakhstan.

Add to that the price sensitivity of vendors for those commodities—automakers like Ford (F) have teams of people monitoring the price of steel, for example—and there isn’t much room for error. Which is why mining companies like Glencore (No. 10 on Fortune’s 2015 Global 500 list), BHP Billiton (No. 139), Rio Tinto (No. 222), and Vale (No. 312) are turning to technology in the form of Internet-connected sensors and software—to stay out of treacherous, remote areas and reap the savings from not sending people to them.

According to new data from IDC, miners are focused on three major issues this year: safety improvement, asset automation, and the management and control of mine operations. According to a survey of 190 miners by the research firm, two of every three mining companies globally are looking at remote operation and monitoring centers. Half are evaluating new mining methods. A third are looking at robotics and one-fourth at unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority—83%—of mining companies say their technology budgets will either stay the same or increase this year. Miners recognize that data-based technologies are changing their business. The winners will be the ones that use technology to keep prices low, quality high, and costs in check.

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