Science fact, not science fiction

THE sky is the limit for automation in the Australian mining industry

The sky is the limit for automation in the Australian mining industry.

Fully automated mines may seem daunting now, says Australian Centre for Automation and Field Robotics (ACAFR) chief executive Olga Sawtell, but mines can achieve full automation in the near future.

“Things are moving very quickly and it is imperative that mines start looking at automation,” Sawtell told Australian Mining.

Rio Tinto recently issued a $21 million grant to The University of Sydney to develop the Rio Tinto Centre for Mining Automation. The centre will support up to 30 full time staff and 10 research students, with funding of $5 million a year when fully staffed.

The Pilbara will be the focus of Rio Tinto’s automation efforts.

Rio Tinto Technology and Innovation group executive Grant Thorne explained the features of a fully automated mine in the September 2007 Rio Tinto Review Magazine.

“I’ve no doubt that in five years we will be operating a much bigger iron ore business in the Pilbara with driverless haul trucks,” Thorne said.

“Automation or robotics isn’t science fiction. It’s here now,” he said.

The technology development that the industry is about to embark on may be daunting, says Sawtell, but the end result is well worth it.

“Automated container terminals seemed daunting when they were being developed, and they are now the most advanced in the world,” Sawtell said.

“There is a long way to go, but it is feasible.”

The Pilbara is already reaping the benefits from latest automation technology.

“We are already making the first strides in railway locomotives and drill rigs. Our first goal is to show the value of controlling a Western Australian operation from a control centre in Perth,” Thorne said.

Automation may be difficult in the short term for older mines. However, even the older mines are increasingly integrating automated mine technology into their operations, such as collision avoidance systems, automated diggers and shovels.

“The older mines will be able to upgrade gradually, make mining safer, and use less people, but it is the newer mines that will be able to employ the latest technology,” Sawtell said.

With more difficult mining, an increasing focus on safety and a shortage of skilled workers, mines will be driven to use automation technology.

“It is about time that we have safety in mines, and keep people safe from equipment that seems to get bigger and bigger. That is the major focus of what we are doing,” Sawtell said.

Thorne says increasing automation will be inevitable in the future mine.“It means safer mining, far less wear and tear on people and machinery, less energy, smoother synchronization of operations and lower cost,” he said.

Automation breakthrough

Australian Mining recenty reported on how Ridgeway copper-gold mine’s mechanised bit changing system was increasing importance of optimisation through automation technology.

The technology has increased productivity at the mine, which is important with a total ore production of 5.6 Mtpa.

Located near Orange in central New South Wales the mine has only been in operation since 2002.

Looking to further increase the productivity of their drill rigs, mine management investigated ways to achieve higher daily drilling rates with the same manning and equipment.

Olga Sawtell

02 9351 7690

osawtell@geosci.usyd.edu.au

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.