Safescape turns a light bulb moment into mining innovation

The Bortana EV.

From safer underground ladders to electric vehicles, Steve Durkin and Safescape have accepted mining’s innovation challenge.

Safescape managing director Steve Durkin recalls the ‘light bulb moment’ that led to the development of the Laddertube solution that today enhances safety in underground mines around the world.

At the time, Durkin was working in a Western Australian mine and had little knowledge of the path to manufacturing mining equipment.

After coming up with the idea he spent a night researching whether or not his concept to create a strong, lightweight underground ladder made of plastic had been done before

Certain it hadn’t, Durkin started on a journey that took several years to convince equipment manufacturers, and then mining companies, that the idea was an innovation the industry needed.

Durkin’s persistence paid off, with the Fosterville gold mine in Victoria being the first of more than 110 mines across 19 countries that has installed the product since 2010.

Despite Laddertube becoming a well-known safety product in mining circles, Durkin doesn’t take the solution’s success for granted.

Instead, he regards the challenges he faced and lessons learned in first making the industry accept the idea, and then commercialising it for mines, as a crucial experience.

“We firstly had to design and create this new product, then we had to convince customers it was a better solution than their existing solution,” Durkin tells Australian Mining at the Austmine 2019: Mining Innovation Conference in Brisbane.

“It had to be safer in terms of the way you install it, safer in terms of its use and had to last longer. That was the main point – to not have the corrosion issue and to keep the salty water out.

“If you are going to change something reasonably dramatically it has to be better on every level.”

Durkin, who received the 2019 Austmine Champion of Innovation award, says Laddertube delivers a number of improvements over steel ladders in addition to the material it is made of.

Laddertube is easily installed as an escapeway with its modular design. It also keeps out any rocks, water and salt build up that might slow an escape by being fully enclosed.

Safescape has installed more than 33 kilometres of Laddertube around the world off the back of these factors.

Laddertube proved to be the breakthrough innovation of a Safescape portfolio that now includes the Multi-Bund, Edge Protector and Paste Hole Cover solutions.

Safescape is expanding this offering with its next underground innovation – the Bortana Electric Vehicle (EV) / Agrale Marruá, which it displayed at Austmine 2019.

The Bortana EV has been designed specifically for underground mining in collaboration with 3ME Technology and the METS Ignited initiative.

Safescape identified the opportunity to develop a mine-ready EV that offers lower maintenance costs, higher uptime, zero emissions, lower heat generation and safer operational controls.

Bortana EV is based on the Agrale Marruá, a heavy-duty, diesel powered Brazilian utility vehicle that is traditionally used in the South American country’s army.

Under the hood of the Bortana EV.


Durkin considers Agrale Marruá to be a robust, low maintenance, corrosion-resistant product that will provide a much longer life than traditional underground vehicles.

“The problem with underground diesel vehicles is that they don’t last very long because of the corrosive environment and the thrashing we give them by overloading or keeping them in low range four-wheel-drive day-in, day-out,” Durkin says. “The maintenance costs are astronomical.”

“The vehicle we are using has been designed from the ground up for a military platform in Brazil – it is incredibly strong and robust.

“The whole body is galvanised. To my knowledge it is the only vehicle in the world that is totally galvanised.

“So we have a vehicle that’s strong enough for the environment, strong enough for the loads that we are carrying, and resists corrosion for an extended period of time.”

Like Laddertube a decade ago, Durkin knows Safescape will need to convince mining companies and contractors of the Bortana EV’s value.

It has already started this process with a three-month trial of the vehicle at an underground gold operation.

Safescape will aim to overcome a perception that the capital expenditure that comes with battery technology prevents EVs from being an economical investment at mines.

Durkin says Safescape will educate the market of the advantages the Bortana EV will provide from an operational expenditure (OPEX) perspective to achieve this.

“They are cheaper,” Durkin says. “People don’t necessarily believe that or think it should be true, but it’s true.

“EVs are always going to have a higher CAPEX because of the battery – you are essentially putting the fuel source into the CAPEX.

“An EV costs a lot upfront but then they have very low maintenance costs. And in our case because of how we have designed the vehicle, it will last a lot longer.”

Importantly for Safescape, the EV platform reflects the values it has established as a company since Laddertube was launched.

“The point of Safescape was to make mines safer and save them money,” Durkin says. “When you think about making light EVs that is what you are doing. You are eliminating the DPM (diesel particulate matter), reducing heat, and they are easier and safer to drive.”

The batteries and some other components will be made by 3ME Technology in Australia. The lithium-ion batteries have been purpose-designed for mining, are maintenance-free, and able to support rapid charging while achieving impressive energy density.

Safescape is weighing up where the vehicle will be manufactured, with Durkin having a preference for this to take place in Western Australia.

Regardless of where it is manufactured, the vehicle is set to create a new opportunity for the mining industry and the next phase of growth for Safescape.

This article also appears in the July edition of Australian Mining. 

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