Making mining safer with automation

At Rio Tinto's Northparkes Mines, machines that dig underground but are supervised remotely by operators are improving safety and efficiency.

Video source: NSW Mining / YouTube.

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TITLE: Risk management in mining: technology, people, safety.

FIRST INTERVIEWEE: As we move into the future, minerals will get deeper and harder to extract, and hazards will probably increase. So Northparkes, being a mine which has a very stable geology, very stable workforce, is the perfect place to test technologies that will help us get those minerals out in the future.

The two main drivers for underground automation are safety and productivity. Since we've put the automation system in, what we've seen is we're now mining over shift change, blasting, and re-entry, so there are up to three hours per day when there's absolutely no one in the mind, but we're still producing, which is a fantastic thing.

SECOND INTERVIEWEE: With one person controlling three loaders, it frees up a lot of other operators to do work. Productivity-wise, we're really seeing the benefits.

FIRST INTERVIEWEE: As we move toward the future, the holy grail for underground automation is to simply remove people from the underground environment and let the machines do the work.

SECOND INTERVIEWEE: Every time you sit in a loader and that, it comes down to experience I suppose, and there's a lot of factors involved, but it's not hard when you're driving a 40-tonne loader with half a metre clearance on either side, it's not hard to put one of these things in the wall if you lose concentration. And it's still an issue here, don't get me wrong, machines are replaceable where people aren't, that's the philosophy we have out here.

FIRST INTERVIEWEE: Having developed an implemented this under a functional safety regime, the risks are well-identified, the controls identified, and we've validated the system to ensure those controls are in place and we continue to monitor that.

One of the main challenges that the industry, I believe, faces with technology, is a fear of change. I think we've been doing this long enough now at Northparkes where this is just another technology we're putting in. We've put technologies in that haven't worked. Not every technology is a winner. The great promise of automation is to reduce the variability in mining, and we're seeing the system do that now. Our bins are staying at much more predictable levels.

SECOND INTERVIEWEE: I've just taken the loader there from full autonomous into remote, I'm just pulling up now, so I've got full control of the loader, so I'm just coming into the draw point here, with a bit of experience and a bit of time in the chair you get the feel of the loader and you get your bearings of where you actually are in terms of the drive.

I've just come out of the draw point there, and press a button, it's in autonomous mode, and that's it. It'll go and come back. 

FIRST INTERVIEWEE: The thing for me is that we look back at what we did in mining a few years ago, and we say how did we do that, why did we do that, how did we let that happen. The concern for me is what are people going to look at us in 10 years' time and see what we're doing and saying how did we let people do that. And I think our job is to identify that and remove those processes.

The robots among us: automated labour

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