Paraszczak, Jacek Department of Mining Engineering, Université Laval, Quebec, Canada.
- Examples of underground equipment automation
- Additional Readings
The implementation of automation in a number of industries has brought significant benefits in terms of higher productivity (through improved performance and reduced downtime), enhanced safety (removing human personnel from hazardous and stressful working environments), and better cost effectiveness. In surface applications, automation is usually employed in well-defined manufacturing cycles of identical components in a well-defined, well-structured, and well-controlled environment. In underground mining, however, the environment is highly variable, unpredictable, and harsh. Currently, the deepest mines in the world, reaching 4000 m, are in South Africa. Geomechanical hazards, limited space, low light, poor air quality (presence of dust, humidity, exhaust gases from diesel engines, and so on), and often intense heat released by the surrounding rock mass in deep mines not only have a negative impact on the health and safety of workers, but also on productivity, equipment effectiveness, and production costs. In this context, enhancement of workers' safety, improvement of the working conditions, and the need to increase productivity and reduce production costs are the main drivers behind attempts to automate underground operations. However, underground mining consists of a series of discrete steps or unit operations (such as drilling, blasting, loading, haulage, conveying, and hoisting) by groups of different equipment types working usually in tandem. Because of the character of the working environment, successful execution of each operation or sequence of unit operations may be compromised. Autonomous equipment must be able to sense, reason, and adapt to this peculiar environment, but many well-proven technologies are not easily transferable to underground mines. As a result, it has been quite difficult for automation to make inroads into underground mines. However, some remarkable progress has been made, particularly in the last 10 years or so. Some interesting technologies that have been developed and deployed underground will be briefly discussed in the next sections.
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