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Mining & Resources | Occupational Health & Safety

How far off is a ‘zero harm’ longwall mine?

7 Feb 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

Thanks to advancements in automation and remote operating technology, the longwall mine is a much safer place than it was ten years ago.

Tools like inertial navigation systems – which are accurate enough to measure the earth’s rotation and can detect the precise orientation of a shearer as its travels up and down the coal seam – are now widely used to isolate people from mining hazards.

In fact, the industry, which accounts for 24 percent of Australia’s mining employment, has seen 70 percent of sites, globally, take up some form of automation technology.

But with the sector only starting out in its technology transformation, what will it take to see longwall mines fully embrace automation; and, in turn, become a zero harm environment?

Mark Dunn from CSIRO – a speaker at this year’s Longwall Conference – believes that, despite Australia’s good track record for technology innovation, more work is needed to accelerate the transition between research and commerciality.

“Australia is generally known for its ability to provide impactful, focussed and targeted research. But with the mining industry’s shelf life, it would certainly benefit from greater efficiency in getting safety systems up and running,” said Dr Dunn.

Ahead of his speech, Dr Dunn highlights three factors he believes could improve this process.

A focus on integration

The mining safety industry is a large ecosystem, consisting of vendors, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), third party researchers, and technology providers.

Dr Dunn says integrating these industry players – and their products and services – is a complex task, but one that must be achieved in the quest for automation.

“Physically, we need to make sure that nuts, bolts and wires are aligned on different types of safety equipment, so that they can be strapped together seamlessly.

“Digitally, we need to make sure that data from multiple systems can be pulled together and make sense,” he said.

“The challenge really boils down to how well thought-out these new solutions are, in advance. Integration needs to be something we consider from the outset – not an afterthought.

“The question then becomes, how do we work with mine sites and OEMs to bring all those items from the physical and digital realm together, into a fit-for-purpose system?”

Better collaboration

Methods that allow for better collaboration between the moving parts of the mining safety ecosystem are one way of addressing the integration challenge.

“We need to follow the demands of the mining industry and initiate step-change faster,” Dr Dunn said.

“In practice, this means not waiting two years for a project proposal and hoping someone will pick it up commercially.

“Instead, it means working directly with mining automation engineers and, on a quarterly basis, producing flexible work packages that contribute towards that larger body of work.”

The coal mining industry already models this type of approach, in a collaboration with ACARP, Dr Dunn highlights.

The industry body works alongside operators and the research community to make sure safety problems are solved in an agile manner, he said.

“ACARP is a fantastic example of how research can translate into a commercial reality more quickly. It’s a case study I reference in a lot of mining contexts – from iron ore through to critical energy. It’s the sort of initiatve we need to see more widely across the sector, especially in the context of mining safety.”

Recognising where technology can help

Dr Dunn says the end goal in the longwall sector’s push towards safer working conditions should not be full automation, but rather minimising harm and maximising benefit.

“I don’t believe a fully autonomous longwall mine is achievable – at least not any time soon. There are too many things that can go wrong with a system like that, and too many operations that will continue to rely on humans.

“The focus should instead be on identifying hazardous tasks, and working with relevant parties to engineer a solution as quickly as possible – but with a broader view on how that solution will fit into the bigger system.”

Mark Dunn is a Senior Principal Research Engineer at CSIRO Mineral Resources. He has been pivotal in the development of a mining automation systems that now exists in 70 percent of Australian longwalls.

Hear more from Dr Dunn at the upcoming Longwall Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.

This year’s event will be held 13-14 March at the Crowne Plaze Hunter Valley.

Learn more and register your place here.

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