Safety is not the only driver of automation and robotics in mining

April 17th, 2014, Published in Articles: EngineerIT


With frequent – and now in some sectors of the mining industry, ongoing – strikes the question arises: should more automation be deployed in mines?  I posed this question to Dr. Declan Vogt , strategic research manager at the CSIR Centre for Mining Innovation.  “I believe that it is the way we are heading!”  he said.

Dr Declan Voght

Dr. Declan Vogt

Automation can remove people from the workface, the most dangerous area in a mine, which immediately improves health and safety. For a long time safety was the main driver for automation but with the exponentially rising cost of labour and the instability of the labour force, automation has become a more compelling case to keep a mine profitable. Dr.  Vogt cites the example a haul truck on a remote mining site in Australia where the total cost of a driver is as much as A$500-million. On top of that is the cost of flying people in from one of the major cities, on site  accommodation and other associated expenses. There are two shifts per day:  seven days on and seven days off. Four drivers are required to keep one truck operational. Adding up the sums it comes to A$2-million per year. At that cost it makes sense to automate haul truck operations.

“Automation can facilitate improvement of the quality of the process”, says Dr. Vogt. “An example of this is automated trucks. They can be programmed to randomly vary their route to avoid the truck tyres wearing slots into the road surface.”

With rising labour costs and an unstable workforce, one would have expected to see more large-scale automation in the South African mining industry. Dr. Voght says it is more a question of the cost of automation and the lack of skilled labour. “In the current climate some mines may acquire new owners who may see going the automation route as a solution to the problems currently being experienced. Some mines may close down until such time as the cost of automation may warrant opening the mine at a later stage.”

Automation is often viewed as a major contribution to job losses which South Africa simply cannot afford. If automation takes off,  the equipment would have to be  manufactured locally and  people currently employed in the mining industry would have to be reskilled.  The Department of Higher Education is currently working on opening more FET colleges to expand technical training. However the requirement for reskilling is not limited to the miners;  it applies also to shift bosses and mine management. The University of the Witwatersrand offers training at the Centre for Mechanised Mining, an initiative that should be extended to other universities. Miners at all levels need to become skilled in the management of capital-intensive,  mechanised equipment.

It is Dr. Vogt’s opinion that on balance, automation will not necessarily result in job losses but will see a shift of where people will be employed. “Expansion of automation will create new job opportunities. However we  have to ensure that equipment is manufactured and maintained locally and not imported from other countries.”

The CSIR is developing some of the technology that will be required for future automation, including navigation and pedestrian avoidance. A recent prototype of a small mineworthy mechanical chassis that can function under remote control has been developed.  It forms the basis of future automation functions like sampling in dangerous areas.  The CSIR is also developing a mine safety platform that can undertake entry inspections after  the blast, before miners re-enter the work space.

Can robots take over the job of the drill operators? The technology exists to do this but it appears that at this stage the cost is the limiting factor.  As technology develops and volume increases it may well be possible do make it  economically viable  in the  near future.

There are however still many challenges to overcome. The process of communication, creating reliable links between robotic equipment and the control room where operations are monitored and initiated have a number of issues to be resolved.  Running fibre cable from the surface to deep down is not much of an option. Other alternatives are using ADSL over copper cables and deploying wireless system to cover the last mile. There is no doubt that these challenges will be overcome.

Participating in a panel discussion on automation in mining (EngineerIT February 2013) Dr. Vogt said that in reality the mining market for automation is very small compared to other sectors such as the oil and gas industry or the military. “Where we can adopt technology from other sectors, that technology will be implemented quickly. However where specific equipment is needed for South African conditions, local research and development will be required. This is of national concern and needs to be addressed at a national level. Investing in mining automation in South Africa will create jobs in an industry that will live on after the mineral deposits have been exhausted”.

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