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Who killed the canary?

Who killed the canary?

The days of early warning by canaries are long gone, as innovation transforms the resources sector into a remote-controlled, safer, prosperous business.

On April 25, 2006, 9.30pm, Todd Russell, Brant Webb, Larry Knight and 14 other miners were almost a kilometre underground at the Beaconsfield goldmine in Tasmania when the earth began to move. A minor seismic event, measuring just 2.2 on the Richter scale, triggered a rock fall, killing Knight and leaving Russell and Webb trapped. The Beaconsfield incident was a tragedy. Fortunately, Russell, Webb and 14 other miners survived, and advances in mining technology and supporting information technology systems played an important part in their escape.

It wasn't the canary - mining's traditional early-warning system - that sounded the alarm. It was a seismic monitoring system. IT played a small but fundamental role throughout the entire saga - from the hydraulic rock splitter that created the rescue tunnel through which the trapped miners escaped, to monitoring devices that found them alive deep in the earth, to the MP3 players sent down the pilot hole.

Such is the story across the booming mining sector. Since the early 1990s, mining companies in Australia have been inserting monitoring equipment into draglines (which remove the dirt and rock); microchips into dumpers, loaders and detonation devices; thousands of kilometres of fibre optics have been strung down mine shafts; and wireless networks have been installed in open-cut sites.

Hitting pay dirt

According to Ian Neilsen, senior mining engineer at Ensham Resources, IT systems are not new to the mining sector, however, recent years have seen the tying together of formerly disparate systems. As a result, Neilsen suddenly has access to a lot more information and custom-built data analysis tools.

"We can spend a lot more time working out solutions rather than trying to figure out what the problems are," he says. "Basically, issues on paper are a lot cheaper than issues out in the field, so we try to run through scenarios, and look for problems that may arise, rather than waiting for things to happen."

Ensham Resources is producing about 9 million tonnes of coal per year from five open-cut pits around the Nogoa River, 35 kilometres east of Emerald in Queensland. It is also undertaking a feasibility study into an underground mining operation in an adjacent site.

As a result of data gathered from the functions of its current dragline excavators, it has invested $100 million in a new 6600 tonne dragline, expected to increase productivity and cut costs at its open-cut site.

"Each of the draglines, and the trucks and loaders, have monitoring equipment on board with GPS, which is linked via a wireless network," Neilsen explains. "We're now looking at setting up a mesh network, so that each unit is both a producer of information and a repeater of information. So if a unit doesn't have line of site it can bounce information off other equipment."

Already, Neilsen and his team have begun to collate and interpret operational data, identifying operators with the most efficient work practices.

"Because the dragline cycles are repeated every minute, small differences in operator habits have a big impact on overall performance," Neilsen says.

As a result production across three draglines jumped 14 per cent in the 12 months following the project's implementation.

Researchers at the CSIRO are looking to further expand on this work, by automating repetitive movements into the dragline's controls, improving productivity and reducing wear and tear on the machines.

Science fiction

The dragline work is only one project where human behaviour has been modified on the basis of better data analysis. Imagine for a moment what mining will be like when that same data and communications mesh makes a fully automated mine possible, where human intervention comes from air-conditioned offices on the surface - perhaps kilometres away from the actual mine.

Equipment vendor Komatsu is already conducting a full-scale trial of autonomous vehicle technology developed in Queensland, at a mine site in South America.

According to Komatsu national manager for continuous improvement Iain Curran, the trial has been running a fully autonomous fleet of 320 tonne trucks for several years. The fleet is controlled from a central location using GPS and radar.

"With the booming demand for iron ore, coal and other minerals, and the continued shortage of skilled labour, Australia will be a prime target for the deployment of this autonomous technology when it becomes commercially available," Curran says.

Moving humans as far as possible from the heat, dust and danger of the mine site is also the goal of David Hainsworth, senior principal research engineer in the CSIRO exploration and mining research division.

Since 2000, Hainsworth has been working on a joint project to create fully automated longwall mining equipment for the coal industry (see "Tech in the mining industry", below). Longwall mining allows for the removal of a long slice of coal in one operation.

Thanks to a $6 million injection from the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP), and the participation of corporate partners such as Xstrata Coal, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) and Anglo Coal, the CSIRO is on the verge of putting the technology into production.

"There's no GPS underground so you can't use a lot of the navigation tools which are based on being of the surface of the earth," Hainsworth says. "It's also a very harsh environment and you have to ruggedise [or improve the toughness and durability of] the equipment for operation in this kind of environment."

Along with toughening up the equipment, Hainsworth says the CSIRO has also managed to settle on a standard industry-wide protocol for mine automation, to ensure continuing developments in the area are interoperable across equipment from different manufacturers.

"We took an existing communication protocol used in factory automation and applied it to a different area," Hainsworth says. "If you have equipment working more accurately and more consistently, and you don't get people putting in the wrong sorts of inputs and breaking things, then productivity improves."

An outcome of creating increasingly intelligent mining machines, and actually getting these machines to communicate with each other, is that the whole process becomes less reliant on human intervention - and safer as a result.

Safety goal

In fact, the ultimate goal of many of the researchers and IT managers in the sector is to never again need to rescue a single miner from a rock face, deep underground.

"What we want to do is deploy automated machinery into the stope [mine void]," explains Jock Cunningham, mining research leader for the CSIRO's minerals national research, Flagship (research area). "They can go in and drill the holes, position the explosives, then go in and assess the result without actually sending people into that 50-metre zone where most of the fatal accidents still occur."

In a similar vein Hainsworth says dangers and discomfort inherent to coal mining make it a perfect candidate for fully automated mining technologies.

"Coal is particularly dangerous because it emits flammable gasses, making the air potentially explosive, so the goal of automation is to remove people from that environment altogether," he says. "At this stage, however, the emphasis is on systems control and data acquisition. The safety lamp and the canary have been replaced by information technology, sensor systems to measure methane levels [and] communications systems to relay this information to the surface."

And although fully autonomous mining is still in its very early phases, gradual improvements in communications technology, air monitoring systems and rock density monitoring technology mean Australian miners are already among the safest in the world.

Mining-related deaths in Australia steadily decreased throughout the 20th century, and have halved in the past decade. According to the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which tracks workplace fatalities for the federal government, there were only 11 mining-related deaths in the 2005-06 financial year, compared with 24 deaths in 1996-97.

Nonetheless, according to the International Labour Organization figures, mining continues to be one of the most dangerous professions. Miners account for 1 per cent of the global workforce, but make up 7 per cent of accidental deaths at work.

China's hazardous industry

In China alone, 4800 miners died in accidents in 2006, according to Li Yizhong, head of the Chinese State Administration of Work Safety. This number was down 21 per cent on the previous year's toll of 5948 mining accident deaths.

At the same time, according to Denis Kent, business development manager for mine communication systems vendor Mine Site Technologies, China is one of the biggest and most diverse markets for mine safety equipment.

"There are a lot of little village mines that are operating outside of regulations, where a lot of these serious accidents occur," Kent says. "But at the same time, other mines in China are incredibly sophisticated and use the latest technology."

However, it was Australia's mine safety record that lead to the formation of Mine Site Technologies in 1986, after an explosion attributed to an ignition caused by a flame safety lamp at an underground mine in Moura, Queensland, lead to the deaths of 12 miners.

The following year, Mine Site Technologies founder Gary Zamel secured funding to develop and commercialise the personal emergency device - a paging, control and remote blasting system, which uses an ultra low frequency to communicate through dense rock. The success of this system lead the company to develop a raft of other communications technologies purpose-built for the mining sector.

"We could see that automation and remote mining were going to be the goal in the long term, so in the interim we've been creating the communication systems to make that remote management a real possibility," Kent says.

Seismic shifts

At the same time that mining equipment is being automated and communication systems are being improved, the ground is moving from underneath IT managers in the mining sector. Increasingly, they are being drawn out of the office and onto the site, where they are now playing a key role in mine operations.

"Mining engineers and IT managers used to be separate roles, but now the IT managers are implementing the mining automation systems and are getting more and more involved with the actual operation of the mine," CSIRO's Cunningham says.

Megan Clark, vice-president for technology at BHP Billiton, is a case in point. She oversees the mechanical systems and her role also encompasses information systems - including machinery automation, wireless broadband connections and operations optimisation software. IT has embedded itself so deeply in mining operations that it has become impossible to extricate one from the other.

On a smaller scale, Matthew Newman, IT manager for pint-sized silver mining outfit Macmin Silver, says IT has become so ingrained in the mine's day-to-day operations that he no longer needs an excuse to head out to the actual mine site.

"All of the sites have PCs and local networks to run administration and collate survey data. Most of the data is generated on site and actually manipulated on site, before it's sent back to the central administration," Newman says. "We just trade information by emailing spreadsheets back and forth, and then we generate the maps and send the data back out on CDs."

As an operator of a small mining operation consisting of a single open-cut mine in production, and a second under development, Newman says he's simply not in the market for the more cutting-edge automation technologies adopted by the likes of Ensham Resources and Xstrata.

Nonetheless, improved internet communications and data analysis technology have both made a significant impact on the company's operations. He says they would make even more of an impact if he could overcome some of the issues associated with the remoteness of Macmin's key mine.

"There are some great technologies that will do amazing things at the sites. In fact, IT has become so ingrained that we can't imagine what it would be like operating without it," Newman says. "People don't build mines in the middle of cities, and broadband satellite connections are not the best way to communicate, but there's nothing else available."

And while it is already becoming easier to gather, analyse and transfer data, this increasing reliance on information networks has thrown up whole new challenges.

The Australian mining sector is largely comprised of a raft of small-scale companies looking to make the most out of one or two mine sites, where the technology manager spends most of their time ensuring the IT systems can actually operate in far-flung locations. However, thanks to a number of innovative research and development investment schemes, even smaller players such as Macmin Silver stand to gain from these technological advances.

Industry innovation

While much of the research into technology goes on within the hallowed halls of CSIRO, research projects are largely planned, and paid for, via industry organisations.

A prime example is the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP), which is funded by a voluntary contribution of 5¢ per tonne of coal sold, and has played a key role in technologies such as the previously mentioned automated longwall technology.

Another important group is AMIRA International (formerly the Australian Minerals Industry Research Association), an independent association whose membership reads like a who's who of the Australian mining sector.

Currently spending just shy of $50 million in industry funds, on 50 research and development projects with an overall portfolio value of nearly $100 million, AMIRA seeks to provide a forum through which companies with similar research interests can co-operate.

Moreover, participation in the research, according to AMIRA's chief executive officer, Deming Whitman, has seen the mining sector itself taking on IT with a renewed vigour.

"There was a phase when millions were wasted on great ideas that didn't work, and a lot of fingers got burnt, but now mining has taken control of its own applications," Whitman says. "The first phase of adoption was for communications technologies between individuals and between equipment, and now we are starting to see a lot of work being done on controlling vehicle movements and making mines safer, more productive environments."

This shift in the use of technology is inexorably leading to a changing culture. Not only are the IT managers playing an increasingly important role, but the miners themselves are morphing from low-skilled labourers into technicians and engineers.

"It's already happening; mines are going to be run more like big production plants, where there are only one or two guys remotely monitoring the overall operations, because of the automation and the robust sensors," Whitman says. "And the best guy for the job will be a highly qualified technician because he needs to understand the communication systems."

As for the canaries, the cage was left open long ago.

Sidebar:

Tech in the mining industry

The Longwall automation project, which has been running since 2001 at a total cost of $10 million, has gradually automated many of the processes associated with cutting into coal seams. In the latest phase of the project, researchers have combined feedback from thermal infra-red cameras, array-based video cameras, ground-penetrating radar and ultrawide band radar technology, in order to determine where the longwall machinery sits relative to the coal seam. The longwall automation system is currently in operation in Xstrata's Beltana Coal Mine in NSW, BMA's Broadmeadow mine in Queensland and Anglo Coal's Grasstree mines, also in Queensland. Now that the development project and pilot have been completed, negotiations are under way for the adoption of longwall automation technology through non-exclusive licences.

Nexsys is an ethernet-based, real time risk profiling, hazard management and decision support system that has been jointly developed by the Japan Coal Energy Center, CSIRO and ACARP. The technology seeks to integrate real time data from ventilation, strata, environmental, atmospheric, operational, statutory, production and maintenance reports with personnel and equipment location systems. Using this data, Nexsys will be able to generate two-, three- or four-dimensional representations of a mine, as well as camera links, to be delivered to any web-based device. Nexsys is already installed in Anglo Coal's Grasstree mine in Queensland, Xstrata's Beltana mine in NSW and the Kushiro Mine in Hokkaido, Japan. It will soon become commercially available.

ROES is an unmanned mining method developed as a joint project between CSIRO, Orica Mining Services and WMC Resources. This project combines machine automation, remote controlled, web-based monitoring and assessment software to determine where and how blast holes should be drilled, and sensing systems to measure rock fragmentation. The project will not only remove humans from some of the most dangerous working conditions, it will also provide more accurate control over drilling and blasting, and remotely monitor rock conditions. The project is currently in the development phase, although electronic detonators are commercially available through Orica Mining Services.

© Fairfax Business Media

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