New technology – crystal gazing

THE need to manage smaller, more highly skilled and more mobile workforces whose abilities are in great demand will require different industrial relations strategies. From the State (Western Australia) Mining Engineer Martin Knee

Mines Safety Director and State (Western Australia) Mining Engineer Martin Knee ponders what the future might hold for mining, particularly the development of automated and autonomous technology.

Remaining at the lower end of the cost curve is of prime importance if a company (or a country) is to remain viable as a mineral producer.

The most effective way of doing this is to take whatever advantage may be available from the lower unit costs generally realisable from making the best use of innovative technology.

This has already been seen in what might be referred to as the mechanisation phase of mining innovation, where, by and large, only those operators who embraced the mechanised technology have remained in business (unless they happen to be mining an exceptional deposit by world standards or have some other off-setting factor in their favour such as a low-cost, highly skilled labour force). It is likely that the scenario will be repeated during the forthcoming ‘automation phase’, when we may expect that those companies who successfully implement automated mining techniques will gain a competitive advantage over less successful enterprises and take an increased market share.

Since the commencement of the mechanisation phase of mining innovation, the tendency has been to increase the size and power of machinery. This has been most evident in underground load-haul-dump vehicles (LHDs) and surface haul trucks, but also applies to drilling technology and other rockbreaking and mobile plant such as dozers.

For a variety of reasons, such as practical engineering considerations and the need to critically review the viability and maintenance requirements of large underground openings at increasing depth, this approach may be reaching both its practical and economic limits. In future, it will be necessary for the industry to develop smarter, not just bigger, machines.

We are at the start of the automated phase of mining technology and the dawning of the age of autonomous machines.

As a half-way house, the industry has for some time been operating with remote control and tele-remote control equipment, which has brought its own specific problems, particularly with respect to control signal integrity, man—machine interaction and recovery from breakdowns in hazardous areas.

It is likely that a multi-disciplinary approach involving the development of IT-based mine planning systems, machine intelligence, communications and data acquisition systems and mining method design will be required if autonomous mining is to be fully implemented. The problems involved are significant and include development of the following:

• a system to give machines a ‘picture’ of the environment in which they work, including the facility to change the picture whenever the mine geography is altered by blasting, the removal of ore or waste or closing off of old worked-out areas and the ‘landscape’ is changed by the repositioning of mobile or temporary structures (including people and other vehicles);

• a guidance system that will allow machines to steer through the continuously varying environment;

• a reliable and accurate system to fix the position in three-dimensional space of each machine in use and each person employed in the mine;

• a navigation system that will integrate the data from the first three systems in real time;

• a reliable and accurate force—position control system for ground-engagement tool interactions with the rock; and

• condition monitoring systems, hardware and software to ensure safe operation of autonomous machines and their safe interaction with personnel in the working environment.

In order to implement successfully the new automated and autonomous technology, changes to operational and organisational methods will be necessary. The effective management of such change will be a major issue requiring much effort to ensure success. Among the changes that must be managed are:

• developing mine layouts that suit the special needs of the technology, including individual items such as design of curves and intersections, road width in surface operations, development width and height in underground mines, and loading and dumping arrangements;

• developing and implementing transitional strategies for existing operations;

• developing means of integrating the planning and scheduling functions — including such specifics as grade control — with the technology for maximum overall benefit; and

• consideration of the need for new maintenance systems and maintenance scheduling requirements to support the new technology.

We have already seen developments in the safety arena that have improved the lot of those working in the industry, such as:

• vastly improved communications including ‘leaky feeder’ and personal emergency device (PED) technology that enables information to be passed on almost immediately;

• geotechnical instrumentation arrays that measure and help to predict seismic activity at the mine scale;

• virtual reality systems used for training equipment operators and correcting ‘bad habits’ to increase the safety and efficiency of operations;

• electronic sensor arrays to detect and warn of a variety of parameters, including gas emissions and fire, in real time; and

• revolutionary applications of rock-breaking and handling technology, such as the use of continuous miners in the iron ore industry.

Of equal importance will be the ‘social’ issues associated with the organisational changes that will be necessary. The need to manage smaller, more highly skilled and more mobile workforces whose abilities are in great demand will require different industrial relations strategies.

The human resource management techniques necessary for the effective management of such workforces are substantially different from those required to deal with groups composed of ‘pick and shovel’ manual labourers and those possessing only basic manipulative, operational and technical skills.

Matters such as the value of new skills and ‘devaluation’ of superseded skills, along with the need to upgrade existing skills, must be properly dealt with by the whole of society and not just by the mining industry.

Finally, to put a human face on all of management of such workforces are substantially different from those required to deal with groups composed of ‘pick and shovel’ manual labourers and those possessing only basic manipulative, operational and technical skills.

Matters such as the value of new skills and ‘devaluation’ of superseded skills, along with the need to upgrade existing skills, must be properly dealt with by the whole of society and not just by the mining industry.

Finally, to put a human face on all of this technological development, let’s end with a quote from someone who really knew what he was talking about in the field of experience of new and revolutionary technology:

Its a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realise that ones safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.

– Alan Shepard (1923—1998) was the second person and the first American to go into space.

This article first appeared in MINESAFE (Vol. 16, No. 2 September 2007) published by the Resources Safety Division of the Department of Consumer and Employment Protection.

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