Underground Mining with Robots

Emerson’s Juan Carlos Bravo, a member of the metals and mining industry team, provides perspective on the recent Mine Site Automation & Communication Africa Summit.

On September 19th and 20th, I attended the Mine Site Automation & Communication Africa Summit, held at the Southern Sun O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa.

At this conference, one could feel and see all the exciting things are happening in the mining industry in Africa, and it was hard not to notice that it is all about underground mining. This was no surprise since South Africa has one of the deepest mines in the world. It’s also prone with a lot of accidents. That is why the main topics of this conference were about how to remove humans from the underground mine in order to go deeper, safer and more efficiently.

One of the best presentations was the one made by Mike MacFarlane, senior vice-president of technology of Anglo Gold Ashanti. They sought to use new technology to unlock 70 million ounces of gold that are 5 kilometers (km) below the surface—not at easy task! What he is proposing was to replace blasting, and instead, use machines that mechanically cut the rock and help to remove workers from the narrow passages—where a lot of fatalities happen. He expects to have a working model in the next 3 to five years.

This will not only help with safety, but Mike MacFarlane also estimates that this will enable AngloGold to increase its extraction rated from around 8 grams per ton to 16 grams or more. This is because stopes currently must be 1.5 meters (5 feet) high to accommodate a person, but the ore body is only 60 centimeters (2 feet) tall. This technology would allow machines in tighter spaces and the ability to mine only what you need.

In the same topic, Jeremy Green from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) presented the results of a mine robot program that started in 2009. If everything goes according to plan, they should produce a prototype robot to replace blasting by 2018. He also believes that mining without blasting could become a reality considerably sooner.

It’s important to note that while we are removing humans from underground mining operations, we are also removing the expertise that we had to prevent and diagnose mechanical problems with heavy machinery, which can lead to costly shutdowns. While using machines is a great idea, it creates issues with the logistics of maintenance since the wear and tear of these machines will be higher. It’s likely that new machines will need to incorporate vibration analysis and lubrication analysis to help avoid breakdowns—especially at 5 km underground. This information can also be used to implement a good preventive maintenance practice to assure efficient operations.

I think it is no longer a question if robots will be used for underground mining, since the benefits will be great, but more a question of when it will happen. It is exciting to imagine that in a couple of years you could be mining from the comfort and safety of your office!

8 comments

  1. Gary Mintchell says:

    Hey, great to hear from “Johnny” Bravo. Missed him at Exchange. Glad he is keeping busy.

    • Juan Carlos Bravo says:

      gary, yes I didn’t saw you at exchange, you where to busy following Jim Cahill.
      Hopefully I catchup with you next time you are in Austin. Johnny Bravo

      • Actually it was probably the other way, JC. Gary’s been one of the pioneer in automation blogging and I’m always trying to steal a secret or two! 😉 #PAuto

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