• Remote control

    Automated technology is changing the face of Africa’s mining sector. But will these machines make mining cheaper and safer, or will they simply replace the humans doing the work?

    Remote control

    A forgotten name is echoing, faintly, through mine shafts across Africa. That name is Ned Ludd. As the story goes, Ludd was a textile worker who, in a fit of rage, destroyed two stocking frames at a UK factory in 1779.

    Inspired by Ludd’s actions, textile workers across 19th Century England lodged protests against similar technologies – such as power looms and spinning frames – in a furious, yet ultimately futile, attempt to thwart the Industrial Revolution and protect their jobs.

    Independent non-executive chairman of Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) Valli Moosa made reference to this in the firm’s 2014 integrated report. ‘Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the debate over the introduction of mechanised and automated processes has raged,’ he wrote. ‘However, it is common cause that increased productivity is better for the economy and ultimately for society as a whole. Eventually, all jobs must be dignified and safe. With the current state of technology, mechanisation is both possible and affordable. But, moreover, it is a social and economic imperative.’

    Not long ago, in September 2013, Anglo American announced a five-year master agreement with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to develop automated technologies for mining. The partnership was presented for what it was: an attempt to reduce costs and improve safety.

    ‘Ultimately, automating the most difficult, costly, and dangerous mining activities will help create far more sustainable and safe working conditions for all underground operators working in the mining industry, and will also increase the productivity and efficiency of Anglo American’s operations,’ said David Bentley, Anglo American’s group head of technology.

    The deal with CMU was just another step in the company’s journey towards automation. In 2009, Anglo American announced the delivery of a longwall miner to its New Denmark colliery. The ZAR720 million system has been designed to extract up to 2 500 tons of coal per hour (nearly 40% more than its predecessor), and all its key functions can be monitored by a control centre in Witbank.

    ‘This will enable us to pick up potential breakdowns before they occur,’ Len Smith of Joy Mining, the manufacturer of the system, said at the time.

    ‘In fact, the unit’s fully-automated shearer, which forms part of the integrated unit, is so advanced that the operator now becomes the observer.’

    That notion – of operator becoming observer – lies at the heart of mining’s robotic revolution. And it’s also what makes mineworkers worry about their future. Mark Gelsomini, information technology director at Dundee Precious Metals, addressed the labour issue at the 2013 Global Mining Technology Forum in Johannesburg. ‘When you introduce robotics and automation, you are essentially introducing a culture change,’ he said. ‘You need to teach your workers not to shy away from it, but to embrace it.’

    Speaking at the same forum, mining innovation consultant Andries Leuschner argued that automation could, in fact, have helped prevent the recent closure of several deep-level South African mines.

    ‘Had they introduced robots, they could have mined these deep reserves, prevented closure and avoided extensive job losses,’ he said. ‘One needs to look at the productivity enhancements that automation has made to the operation to understand the benefits of automation for the workers.’

    ‘One of the primary functions of a robot like this would be to determine whether or not an environment is safe for humans to enter’

    Those benefits are already being seen. As part of their deal with Anglo American, CMU recently produced a working robotic prototype that can enter a mine site immediately following a blast and navigate on its own while conducting measurements and taking readings.

    As the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Van Zyl Brink explains, robots such as these will be able to access dangerous areas where humans cannot enter.

    ‘One of the primary functions of a robot like this would be to determine whether or not an environment is safe for humans to enter,’ he says. ‘There’s a process of sensing the stability of the rock mass, sensing the environment, monitoring the air… Basically, before humans go into the environment, robots will sense whether it is safe or not.’

    Speaking to Business Day Live, Bentley explained how this kind of automation will help mineworkers, rather than rendering them redundant. ‘This is not replacing anybody’s job,’ he said.

    ‘This is taking away some of the manual activities that delay getting up to a productive level and getting it done automatically. What’s happening in the industry is people around the world are looking at opportunities for using automation to improve precision. So we are looking at ways we can assist workers and operators through automation.

    ‘One thing we are looking at [in terms of underground machines for use in coal mining], is where we can have something that looks at the picks [that are digging the coal] to see if they require replacing so we don’t have to stop for an hour to check wear and then start again. We can do that while the machine is online.

    ‘That’s not taking away any jobs. That’s aiding productivity, because we don’t have to stop by using robotic devices.’

    Anglo American’s Kumba Iron Ore business experienced something similar when it tested its first drill automation kit at its Kolomela mine in November 2014. In a statement released by the company, Henk Pienaar, a member of the advisory team to the automated drilling project team, said: ‘We were gathered inside the drill cabin with the lead programmer from Flanders Electric, armed only with his laptop. He showed us a pre-programmed GPS waypoint on his control screen, selected the “execute” command and we watched as the drill performed its first automated propel, positioning and drilling sequence.

    ‘It was exciting to see that in a short period of time, and with the right support from management in place, so much could be achieved by the project team.’

    Pienaar’s comments hint at one of the key ways automation is changing the mining industry. Over and above the laudable safety and productivity benefits, automation is also changing the way miners work – and, it can be argued, creating new jobs in the process.

    The AutoMineLoading solution from Finnish manufacturers Sandvik helps mines automate their loading cycles, whereby a single operator manages several loaders from the safety of a control room. ‘The AutoMineLoading solution is a fully scalable fleet automation system that increases the safety and profitability of underground mining operations. [It] … can be adapted for applications ranging from stoping to sublevel and massive block caving,’ says Sandvik’s automation vice-president Riku Pulli in a statement.

    ‘The loader and area are handled as one entity, and this gives flexibility as one operator is now able to operate several production areas simultaneously.’ Pulli adds that the automated bucket-filling option allows for the AutoMine-Loading products to automate a mine’s entire loading cycle, with the operator now supervising the operation instead of having to operate everything manually.

    Meanwhile, JSE-listed Master Drilling recently launched the RD8, a raise borer that is able to drill shafts of up to 1.5 km deep with an 8m diameter. The machine, which will be in operation at Palabora mine, entails the construction of two ventilation shafts, each 6.1m in diameter and 1.2 km deep.

    ‘Three or four years ago, the industry thought it was impossible to drill a straight hole one kilometre deep,’ Master Drilling CEO Danie Pretorius says, as reported by Moneyweb. Cadiz Corporate Solutions’ mining specialist, Peter Major, took it a step further: ‘Until now, I thought the deepest mechanically bored horizontal hole was probably around 1 km deep, and 6m wide at most,’ he said at the launch. ‘This machine, and its capabilities, is simply unbelievable. This is Star Wars-type stuff.’

    During the announcement of Amplats’ results for the first half of 2015, CEO Chris Griffith predicted that most of the platinum ounces produced by the world’s biggest platinum company in the next decade would come from mechanised mining.

    The mining industry, then, is caught between two visions of the future: one where mines are completely automated, in which robots do all the work while humans – unemployed, redundant, replaced – are nowhere to be seen. The other sees humans using machines to drive productivity, reduce costs and ensure safety.

    Either way, the future of mining will most certainly be automated.

    By Will Sinclair
    Image: Greatstock/Corbis