For the last decade, we have read about the great technical innovation that is coming to the mining industry that will increase safety and productivity. There is consensus that it will be a technical innovation that will produce a step change in mining costs and outputs (as opposed to bigger machines or less people); however, this innovation (while freely available) has not taken hold in the industry. While there are a few mines that have embraced technology, the majority of underground mines simply do not have the expertise or technical capability to implement innovation and automation.
With unexploited mineral deposits becoming deeper and more remote, and thus more hazardous to mine, telepresence offers the ability to remotely execute production tasks while separating personnel from hazards. As the technologies required to deliver telepresence mature, the potential for there to be no personnel underground during production activities is becoming a reality (the ‘dark factory’). So significant is the capacity of telepresence to mitigate risk, it is proposed that it be included as a separate entry in the hierarchy of hazard mitigation controls.
Technical innovation such as the optimised short-term interval control of the production process and the automation of underground mobile fleets offer significant increases in production along with lower operating costs. This paper explores the most critical components for the successful implementation of technology in underground mining; redundant, robust and high-bandwidth communications networks to carry data from distributed networks of smart sensors and to convey teleoperation commands; and high-definition video to provide operators with detailed, real-time data. The days of analogue ‘leaky feeder’ as a base case for communications are over. The human resources required to support the expected wave of innovation are significant and will be difficult to maintain in remote areas as the same skills and expertise are in demand in other industries.
The paper highlights barriers to innovation in the mining industry, and a lack of technical and scientific expertise within the industry to be able to identify, implement and manage technologies that can increase safety and productivity. As well, an over-reliance on basic net present value (NPV) financial analysis that is used in the industry punishes investment in technology (capital expenditure; CAPEX) and accepts higher operating expenditure (OPEX) due to the discounting of future savings in operating costs.
Cronin, J, 2017. Telepresence – the application of remote control and automation technologies for increased safety and productivity, in Proceedings 13th AusIMM Underground Operators’ Conference 2017, pp 213–224 (The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy: Melbourne).