Underground mining — automate or die

By | 2019-04-04T13:29:05+00:00 April 4th, 2019|Mining in Focus|

Technology is changing the face of underground mining, writes Leon Louw and Dineo Phoshoko.

Joe Keenan, the managing director of BME. Image credit: BME

Joe Keenan, the managing director of BME. Image credit: BME

Technology has made a significant impact on underground mining. Automation, mechanisation, the Internet of Things (IoT), data integration, and information management systems are changing the way mines operate, or plan to operate in the future. This does not only apply to new greenfield operations in feasibility stages, but also to older, more complex operations like the mines in South Africa’s platinum belt, for example. Although the geology, and the way that these mines were planned and designed, does not always lend itself to autonomous mining methods, data integration and management systems will radically modernise the way they operate.

There is no doubt that technology has already interrupted and will continue to interrupt the traditional way of mining. According to Niel McCoy, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology BLM Automation – Southern Africa, the way that companies manage mines will have to change radically if they want to remain relative in the next five years.

Innovation has been a hallmark of Sandvik’s modernisation drive over the past 10 years. The solutions-driven company has been instrumental in the development of ASX-listed Resolute Mining’s fully autonomous Syama underground mine in Mali. The Syama underground mine will be the world’s first purpose-built, fully automated, sublevel cave gold mine in the world.

Syama is a good example of what to expect from mining in the future, although these methods might already be out of date even five years from now. It also illustrates how original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other suppliers will have to partner with mining companies and actively become involved in the planning and development stages of projects.

John Welborn, Resolute’s managing director and CEO, says Sandvik is the only equipment provider that could offer the full suite of proven autonomous equipment and digital solutions that the gold mining company required.

Resolute and Sandvik designed the operation, collaborating on equipment selection, underground infrastructure design, and the ability to match solutions to the miner’s requirement to operate machinery that increases profitability, reduces costs, and improves safety.

Welborn says there are several benefits to automating its Syama Mine in Mali. These include increased machine productivity and performance; a reduced number of machines required; reduced risk and better safety outcomes; a reduction in underground personnel; lower production costs per tonne; greater control of mining with less variation; a reduction in wear and damage; increased productivity and efficiency; greater machine life; the potential for mining rate increases; and the ability to train the workforce using new technologies.

Furthermore, the partnership provided an opportunity for shared knowledge of technologies, linking Sandvik equipment and the software that Resolute uses with their value chain and operations. Sandvik provided their AutoMine and OptiMine systems for planning, analysis, process optimisation, and automation, including a full fleet of Sandvik TH663i trucks, LH621, DL421 autonomous drills, and Sandvik LH514E electrical loaders to fully automate the mine.

Resolute’s Syama automation plan, along with a power upgrade project, has helped it reduce the cost profile of the operation by as much as 15%. An updated definitive feasibility study (DFS) released in July 2018 lowered its Syama all-in sustaining costs (AISC) from USD881 per ounce (oz) to USD746/oz. The lower cost profile is supported in the new DFS by a 38% increase in underground reserves and a four-year increase to the mine life to 2032.

Resolute has agreed to work with Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology for three years. The partnership includes the introduction of current and future Sandvik technology.

Sandvik’s i-series range of equipment supports the movement of mining companies into an underground automation environment.

Within this range, the LH621 loader has been matched with the TH663i truck due to their designed payload capacities. The LH621 features the latest Sandvik Intelligent Control System and My Sandvik Digital Services Knowledge Box onboard hardware for product health monitoring and faster troubleshooting.

The TH663i truck is designed for intelligent mine operations and improved productivity. It also comes automation-ready and can be equipped with an optional AutoMine Trucking Onboard package.

The automation compatibility provides the possibility to move equipment operators from underground to other locations, improving safety.

New technologies in blasting

As mining companies rapidly shift their strategies and operating models to leverage digital transformation, new technologies in blasting and explosives are making an evermore vital contribution to bottom-line improvements.

According to Joe Keenan, managing director at blasting company BME, a combination of market volatility, changing global demand, and radically different input economics, has contributed to a seismic shift in the industry.

“Automation in mines, new analytic capabilities, digital workers, and remote operation are just some examples where technologies are disrupting the mining industry today,” says Keenan. “At BME, our turnkey blasting offering is based on our ongoing investment in technology in precisely these fields; combining the power of mobile computing and cloud data storage to enhance safety, productivity, and information transparency, allowing quicker and better decision-making.”

He highlighted IoT as an important driver of mine profitability through safe, efficient, and automated operations.

“Our Axxis centralised blasting system (CBS), for example, takes the benefits of electronic detonation into the underground environment — with active monitoring and detection that gives mines the ability to take corrective action before a blast instead of just remedial action afterwards,” says Keenan. “The system’s data collection capability provides faster insights and improved blast prediction using advanced analytics and data tools; it also allows data visualisation through dashboards and easier information accessibility,” he adds.

In similar fashion, BME’s Xplolog technology closely monitors the activity and performance of teams conducting drilling, charging, and stemming on a blast site — and controls the utilisation of key resources like emulsions.

“Xplolog captures detailed information on each hole, picking up inconsistencies or issues that could reduce the quality of a blast,” says Keenan. “This easy-to-use tool can upload and download data, presenting it on a dashboard for better management decision-making, and integrates with our powerful Blastmap III design software,” says Keenan.

According to Keenan, the landscape is no longer about commodities; rather, the focus is now on embracing technology and evolving as an industry. “This means increasing collaboration between mines and their partners; we are constantly being approached by our customers to participate in new mining technologies, so we work increasingly in collaboration with them to find solutions for the industry as a whole,” he says.

He highlights how a more interconnected and information-based mining operation will continue to push the envelope of which activities really need human interaction and which can be automated. “The possibilities for new operating models and new levels of optimisation will create the next wave of differentiation in the industry,” Keenan concludes.

Where it will all happen in future: in the control room. Image credit: Sandvik

Where it will all happen in future: in the control room. Image credit: Sandvik

Technology to change the face of mining

South Africa is home to some of the deepest underground mines. Historically, underground mining was a labour-intensive process and mine employees got by with very basic equipment. Today, underground mining is a different story thanks to technological innovations and development. Technology has played a crucial role in the improvement of underground mining — having a positive impact on efficiency, safety, and productivity.

Technological developments usually come about following extensive research and development (R&D) into the challenges of underground mining. In most circumstances, various stakeholders, such as tertiary institutions, mining houses, and research institutions, collaborate in identifying challenges and coming up with technological solutions to address challenges.

At the launch of the Sibanye-Stillwater Wits DigiMine Project at Wits in 2018, director of Wits Mining Institute and coordinator of the Wits DigiMine project, Professor Fred Cawood, highlighted the importance of mining research. He mentioned mining as an important contributor to South Africa’s economy.

The DigiMine project is an initiative between Sibanye-Stillwater and Wits Mining Institute where a Digital Mining Laboratory (DigiMine) was established at the basement of the Chamber of Mines building at the University of the Witwatersrand. The laboratory also includes the Wits Mining Institute’s mock-up mine. “The Sibanye-Stillwater/Wits relationship is a technology-focused partnership that is helping to make mines safer and hence, more productive,” he said.

MineARC business development manager for greater Africa, Jason van Niekerk, mentions that there seems to be enough R&D into underground mining technology. “MineARC places a large focus and allocation of engineering resources into research and development,” he says.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is another institution involved in R&D for mining technology. Commenting on the CSIR’s role in supporting the South African mining industry, CSIR principal researcher, Dr Dave Roberts, says that the organisation was identified as a primary research provider to the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) Centre of Excellence.

State of underground technology

The ‘Monster’ robot aims to assess and identify risks for underground mines. Image credit: CSIR

The ‘Monster’ robot aims to assess and identify risks for underground mines. Image credit: CSIR

Van Niekerk says that although there is a big push for mines to become more automated, with better safety controls in place, they still seem to be cost sensitive and lack the backbone infrastructure to run most of these new systems. Despite this, Van Niekerk believes that the industry is willing to implement new products and technologies underground.

Using Australia as an example, he says that mines in the country are ahead in terms of implementing up-to-date technology in their operations. “A majority of our larger clients that focus on this type of equipment and infrastructure, are actually from Australia,” he says.

South Africa is slowly following suit; however, there are several challenges that still need to be addressed. The depth of some of South Africa’s mines poses serious challenges, especially with getting machinery down the mines. With depth comes an additional challenge of high temperatures, as some underground mines reach temperatures of up to 40oC. This means that the technology must be able to function at such high temperatures.

According to Van Niekerk, some mines still favour budgets for implementation over measures to improve on production, which is understandable; however, they allocate smaller budgets for safety in most cases.” This is another challenge for underground mining technology. He adds that the industry still has a conventional mentality when it comes to technology. “They refer to what we consider basic and necessary safety measures as ‘nice to haves’ or ‘too luxurious’ for their operations.”

A way to get around this challenge would be to educate the industry about the benefits that come with implementing underground mining technology. “We need to educate the older generation of miners to realise that where technology can prevent loss of life, it should not be considered as ‘nice to haves’ or ‘too luxurious’,” says Van Niekerk. He makes an important point about the necessity for redundancies in emergency situations. “Just because a generator didn’t fail in a previous fire or incident, does not mean it won’t happen next time,” he says.

Technology developments in underground mining

Numerous technological innovations have positively impacted underground mining. “One of the most noticeable current trends is the live tracking of mining personnel and vehicles, and improvements are implemented constantly,” Van Niekerk says. Other trends include live continuous gas, environment, and ventilation monitoring via a node network (generally run with fibre optics).

In addition, there are underground Wi-Fi communications, automated early warning systems, and the adoption of proper emergency safe refuge chambers. “At MineARC, we are currently in the process of rolling out a cost-effective solution to allow all our products to be capable of being utilised within in a mine setting,” says Van Niekerk.

The DigiMine project has produced interesting technological developments, including:


  • Seismic sensors to monitor seismic activity, extensometers to monitor rock instability, and sensors to monitor air quality;
  • Underground and above-ground wireless communication, including automated transmission of metered information from the tunnel to the WMI Digital Mine Lab, enabling real-time, intelligent processing of information;
  • Sophisticated video-camera technology to monitor movement; and
  • Research into Indoor Positioning Systems to enable access control, as well as tracking and positioning of personnel and equipment within above-ground and below-ground mining operations.


Late last year, the CSIR showcased their latest mining technologies. Among the technologies displayed was a robot platform equipped with safety inspection sensors to enter mines during safety periods. Known as ‘Monster’, the robot aims to assess and identify risks for underground mines.

Sandvik monitoring a mining operation. Data and information management will become increasingly important in the future. Image credit: Sandvik

Sandvik monitoring a mining operation. Data and information management will become increasingly important in the future. Image credit: Sandvik

Principal engineer, Dr Shaniel Davrajh, highlighted the importance of using robotic technologies in the mines. He told Mining Mirror that using these technologies could assist in reaching some of the areas that are not accessible during an incident. “A robot equipped with safety inspection sensors will enter the mine during a safety period. It becomes very difficult and dangerous for humans to enter into the mine after an incident,” he said.

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), which is being researched as one of the South African Mining Extraction, Research, Development and Innovation (SAMERDI) Advanced Orebody Knowledge technologies, was also displayed. This technology contributes to the zero-harm objective, by enabling miners to visualise potentially hazardous geological structures in the hanging wall that could lead to falls-of-ground. “Managing health and safety risk in a mine requires real-time monitoring and quantification of the underground hazards and the exposure of personnel and equipment to such hazards,” comments principal geophysicist, Dr Michael van Schoor.

The CSIR also developed a pedestrian detection system. The system uses a range sensor to determine the distance to each identified person and tracks each person to determine if and when a collision is likely to occur.

Another technology that was exhibited is an early-warning and monitoring system called ‘RockPulse’. RockPulse will assist mines with listening to raw micro-seismicity; extracting micro-fracture features, and analysing the resulting series of features to detect large instabilities taking place in the rock mass in time.

The future

Considering the innovations, R&D, and the progress made in terms of underground mining technology, it is safe to say the future looks promising. “We wouldn’t be allocating our engineering resources to develop new and integrated technologies if we didn’t feel it could improve the mining environment and overall safety of miners,” says Van Niekerk.

He adds that MineARC has plans to launch more products and technologies in the next few months — related to improving mine safety over the next few years. “These are all related to our GuardIAN Network System, and include site-wide, real-time gas monitoring, personnel tracking and guidance, and of course, improvements to our own refuge chamber technology,” he says.