Could COVID-19 Accelerate Mechanised Mining?

by Ina King (Potgieter) May 28, 2020

Mechanised mining has long shown promising investments for mines across the world. As automated mining technologies advance and improve, the global industry has slowly begun adaption.

Yet, with COVID-19 causing extreme social distancing and intense regulations on a world-wide scale, an extra push in the direction of automation seems probable.

Could fully automated mines soon be the new normal?

Adapting automated mining in Australia and Africa

One of the first developments into automation began with global mining giant Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future initiative in 2008. It was a futuristic strategy aimed to revolutionise mining in the use of autonomous equipment and technology.

Today, from a remote operations centre in Perth, Western Australia, workers operate the autonomous mining vehicles working on the mines. It is estimated that around a third of the haul truck fleet on Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mines are autonomous at this point.

Yet, it was only in 2018 that the world saw its first fully autonomous mine in operation, the underground gold mine, Syama in Mali. Operating 24/7 with fully automated trucks, loaders and drills, all operations can be overseen from a remote centre.

Syama mine, 80% owned by Resolute Mining 20% by the Government of Mali, was designed in partnership with Swedish engineering company, Sandvik.

When looking to the South African environment, there are numerous examples of mechanised mining in progress. One of these is Finsch Diamond Mine in the Northern Cape, which has made use of an automated trucking loop, including 6 ‘driverless’ trucks since 2008. Mining in the platinum industry is another example. By 2015, 30% of South Africa’s underground platinum production was already coming from mechanised mines.

“Increased interests and adaption towards digitalisation in the African mining sector have been on the rise,” said Simon Andrews, Vice President of Sales at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology Southern Africa. He is also MD of the Sandvik South African Group of Companies.

In 2018, Andrews explained his belief that the industry was becoming more receptive to the idea of automation, with a ‘tipping point’ in market adoption “on the horizon”.

Could COVID-19 be the force behind a tipping point?

Safety regulations and COVID-19 outbreaks

Around the world, mining companies have been affected by restrictions enforcing social distancing, alongside COVID-19 outbreaks. This means the foreseeable future of many mining operations is uncertain.

On 16 May this year, Impala Platinum (Implats) temporarily closed its Marula mine in Limpopo Province after several asymptomatic miners tested positive for the coronavirus.

Through proactive and strict screening and testing, of employees returning to work, and implementing tracing protocols, the mine was able to identify most of those infected with the virus.

Considering the production challenges in a lockdown environment, the idea of automation becomes a feasible solution to reduce human contact on mines.

Disadvantages of mechanised mining

There are technical challenges to autonomous operations, making some projects tougher to implement than others. Resolute Mining’s Syama was appropriate for automation as its ore body dimensions are ideal for sub-level caving mining.

This top-down mining method requires a relatively standardised, repetitive processes, allowing for the autonomous vehicles to follow a very similar route, regularly, with each one acting as a component to the overarching machine.

Yet, this is not as simple for all mining projects, making automation less easily implemented than it may seem.

Where to from here?

As early as 2015, the then director of the Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems (CMMS), Dr Declan Vog, highlighted the South African mining industry as committed to mechanisation in its deep-level mining operations. Vog also reported that major gold and platinum producers had already announced their intent to modernise operations.

Although the industry may be fearful of what automation brings, it can be beneficial to both employees and mining companies, alike. Automated mining processes trigger new employment positions and responsibilities, making skills upliftment a necessity to the mining industry, and, in turn, increases employment.

If this crisis continues to threaten mining productivity to the extent it already has, the industry could see some immense autonomous mining adaptions in the near future.

Although one cannot predict the degree to which COVID-19 will impact the mining industry, one thing is certain, the industry will need to prepare itself for a ‘new normal’, in which operations can be sustained through times and challenges of a pandemic.

Could it be that this ‘new normal’ accelerates an increase in mechanised mining operations?

If so, mechanised mining technology suppliers are provided the opportunity for vast growth.

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