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What’s going on below? – Innovations in underground mining transport

By Kelly-Ann Prinsloo

We consider innovations in underground mining transport globally and how these innovations can help keep mineworkers safe.

The transportation of bulk and non-bulk materials in the mining industry is a complex task. Increasing customer demand for efficiency requires that transportation becomes more accurate, flexible, and faster than ever before. And, not only are mining companies having to overcome the challenges these demands bring, but they are being forced to do so while keeping costs to a minimum.

The benefits of automation

Mining companies around the world are either using or considering using automated mining technologies. De Beers Finsch’s diamond mine in the Northern Cape, South Africa; Codelco's El Teniente copper mine in Chile; and Rio Tinto's West Angelas mine in the Pilbara region, Australia, are among the first underground mines to adopt automated haulage and transport systems. BHP Billiton has also started experimenting with driverless trucks and an automated remote operating centre for its iron ore operations in the Pilbara region of Australia. Vale has elected to make its Carajas Serra Sul S11D iron ore mine automated and completely truckless. Rio Tinto has announced that it will deploy the world's biggest underground automation system for block caving operations at the Argyle underground diamond mine.

Close encounters

Collisions between pieces of machinery or between machinery and people are a common cause of accidents in both underground and open-pit mines. Proximity detection technology can be installed on mobile machinery to detect the presence of workers or machinery within a certain distance of the machine, thus helping to prevent accidents.

The US’ National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed an active proximity warning system, called the Hazardous Area Signalling and Ranging Device (HASARD). It warns workers by means of visual, audible and vibratory indicators that they are approaching dangerous areas around heavy mining equipment. Equipment giant Caterpillar has also developed detection technology called Cat Detect Personnel, which features as one of the five sub-modules of its integrated mining management suite, Cat MineStar. The technology involves radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to be worn by workers, with the detectors mounted across the machines to warn operators via audio and visual indications of possible collisions, speeding or rollovers.

All these innovations are helping to make the mining industry and mineworkers safer.

Innovations down under

Australia is one of the world’s biggest mining countries, and their rate of innovation in mining transport and logistics has steadily grown over the past decade as companies address productivity, complexity, and capital-efficiency challenges. This is according to a white paper written by Dr Simon Dunstall, a senior research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

According to the white paper, in Australia and other countries, the research and development (R&D) response to these innovations has ramped-up to suit – especially in sensing, automation, analytics, simulation, and optimisation. Simulation models would be familiar to many people involved in planning mining developments and supply chains. Most Australian ports, for example, have at least one simulation model for generating insights into future port expansions and operating procedure changes.

Similarly, the transport systems leading to these ports have been intensively studied using simulation to explore capacity questions in recent years. Simulation has an enormous benefit of enabling planners to observe a system before it is (expensively) built or modified – hence it is a widely used technique.

Automation for underground and above ground haul trucks provides opportunities for increased safety, as well as higher material haulage rates per vehicle. For example, MINEGEM is an autonomous navigation system for load-haul-dump vehicles that was developed by CSIRO and commercialised by Caterpillar in the mid-2000s. 2D laser scanners are used as the main sensors that feed into the navigation algorithms, and operators situated away from the site oversee the vehicles. Companies using the technology have reported an increase in productivity of 10–20%.

For logistics and production in minerals supply chains, the development of ICT, automation and decision-support technology is being actively and rigorously progressed by various research and commercial organisations around the world. The continued engagement of this R&D (especially in Australia where it is a particular focus area) by a good cross-section of the mining industry, can drive ongoing and lasting productivity gains to help keep mining industries around the world competitive. It will also bolster the state of underground transport in other countries, which in turn lowers the risk of injury and fatalities underground.

 

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