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The Syama gold mine. Image: Resolute Mining.

An expert from SAP Africa has said mining companies may be forced to adopt autonomous technology to keep production flowing amid worldwide shutdowns due to the coronavirus.

SAP Africa industry advisor for mining Shabir Ahmed said a reduction in the human workforce may be mine sites only choice to manage the spread of the virus.

“The COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak has made the immediate future of several mining operations around the world uncertain,” he said.

As a result, there may be an increased appeal and demand for solutions to reduce the human workforce at mine sites.

“Whilst it is not possible to predict how COVID-19 will further disrupt the mining industry, what is certain is that the mining industry must reconfigure and prepare itself to operate under a new normal, one in which it can operate and sustain itself under the new constraints and challenges that such pandemics bring with them.”

South Africa is currently has nearly 1500 confirmed cases of coronavirus, as the country enters its third week of a 21-day nationwide lockdown.

The lockdown has stopped mining operations to minimise the spread, and with good reason, according to Ahmed.

“Some mines have thousands of men and women underground, descending into the depths in crowded ‘cages’,” Ahmed said.

“In South Africa, this is exacerbated by the fact that the mining labour force remains migrant, with constant movement between the gold fields and platinum belt and Lesotho, Mozambique and the Eastern Cape.

“In addition, the average age in the industry’s workforce is over 40, increasing their vulnerability to an illness that poses a greater risk the older the infected person is.

“It does not take an epidemiologist to realise that the mining work environment is a catalyst for spreading the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Minerals Council of South Africa reports that South Africa has almost 420,000 mining workers.

The country’s Syama underground gold mine in Mali recently became the world’s first fully autonomous mine.

This means it can operate 24 hours a day while being controlled from a remote operation centre,  requiring no one to be present on site.

Mining operations have not been shut down across Australia, but the fear of a nationwide shutdown looms.

Prior to the coronavirus, mining giants were beginning to deploy more automated vehicles and equipment to their operations.

Rio Tinto currently has made a third of its haul truck fleet autonomous in the Pilbara region.

Meanwhile, BHP will be rolling out 20 autonomous trucks to its Newman East iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia by the end of this year.

“Depending on how long this crisis lasts, the mining industry could see big moves into autonomous mining technologies in the not-too-distant future,” Ahmed said.