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With an influx of automation technology entering the mining industry, companies continue to look for ways to take advantage of the latest gadgets. And as the coronavirus causes ripple-effects across the country’s workforce, automation could prove to be a saving grace.

In the 1984 movie blockbuster, The Terminator, mankind’s ambition to create more advanced technology results in its creations rising and taking over.

But unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger’s evil robot character, automation technology is saving jobs and businesses, allowing mines to continue to operate without site personnel in the case of a total workplace shutdown.

SAP industry advisor Shabir Ahmed believes the length of the coronavirus crisis will determine how necessary automation becomes.

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

“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.”

Australia’s Resolute Mining has led the way in developing a fully automated mining operation at the Syama underground gold mine in Mali, West Africa.

With the help of Swedish engineering company Sandvik, the mine now has the ability to operate 24 hours a day with a fleet of fully automated vehicles and equipment.

All operations are managed and controlled from a remote operations centre.

South Africa’s mining industry is made up of 420,000 workers who often descend into underground mines inside crowded “cages”.

With the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus, mines are in danger of becoming petri dishes for infection.

And while South Africa faces a national lockdown which has shut off mining at the time of writing – Australia has not taken such decisive steps.

Automation potentially holds the key to preventing the spread of coronavirus in the mining industry, while allowing production to keep flowing.

Months before the coronavirus’ impact, other big name mining companies were ramping up plans to go autonomous.

In February, Newmont’s Boddington gold mine in Western Australia moved towards becoming automated by 2021 after securing a $US150 million ($247 million) investment in a Caterpillar autonomous haulage system with a fleet of autonomous CAT 793F haul trucks.

BHP also decided to add 20 autonomous trucks to its Newman East iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which will be deployed by the end of the year.

According to a statement from BHP’s Newman operations general manager Marie Bourgoin, the move does not mean jobs will be replaced by machines.

“The new roles will plan the truck routes and operate the autonomous systems from a control centre, which will initially be located at the mine,” Bourgoin explains.

These changes are not new, however. One of the first shifts to automation was Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future initiative in 2008.

Around a third of Rio Tinto’s Pilbara haul truck fleet is now autonomous, with that number steadily increasing.

And while some may still find driverless trucks to be a product of the future – they aren’t. ifm efector systems & IoT manager Freddie Coertze tells Australian Mining the future of the mining industry has already arrived.

For Coertze, there is no better time than now for companies to take the training wheels off and jump the gun into autonomous technology, given the current state of affairs.

“In the last two weeks of talking to customers, all we talk about now is getting remote monitoring systems on remote critical assets for them because they can’t access the site,” Coertze says.

“I really see a change especially in Australia where customers are starting to be more and more open to certain technologies.”

Cat 793F autonomous mining truck.

ifm offers a huge portfolio of sensor and control solutions for automation across several industries worldwide.

The company provides a range of mining-related technologies such as pressure sensors, temperature sensors and flow sensors. Its sensors continue to help mining machinery stay up and running.

“One thing that we provide for users is the ability to control and monitor sensors through smartphones and tablets,” Coertze says.

“We have a universal technology called IO-Link. Basically, it allows us to unlock all of the trapped information inside a sensor.

“For example, if you get a simple inductive Proximity switch, we can now actually read the true inductance of the target coming across and we can then give you the actual distance to a metal target. We can now detect mechanical wear of the target. That means it becomes a lot more valuable than how it was traditionally used before.”

The ifm suite software can also run on computers or through a smartphone application. Coertze says this allows mine sites to be monitored from anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection.

This gives mine workers the ability to work from home if their mine has adopted specific automation technology.

“If we have 20 IO Blocks in the field, we can actually scan the network and it will read all the sensor data directly to your laptop,” he says.

“That means a user can actually parametrise and get data and diagnostics straight from the sensors.

“Workers can monitor the mine from their home if it has enough of this technology. If you have sensors they become like extra sets of eyes and ears.

“If you don’t have a clear view of what’s happening on site, then you can just jump on your computer and you can scan all the devices and see all your instruments.”

Maintenance sensors are not all that ifm provides. The company also sells a range of automated vehicle equipment that can be controlled off site.

And that might become the norm depending on how long the coronavirus crisis lasts.

“We provide controllers for mobile vehicles and also for drill rigs on sites as well,” Coertze says. “We offer a control-based screen for the truck or the mobile rig which will read all the data provided. From there, we send it to a cloud database through a 4G connection where we perform analytics.

“Basically, all we need is to just call someone to go set-up the rig and then they can basically move away and fully monitor it from their house.”

According to Coertze, automation is “100 per cent” important during the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the products in our portfolio is vibration monitoring for pumps and motors,” Coertze says.

ifm’s vibration monitoring sensors eliminate the need for a person to physically be at the site to check the condition of a machine, such as a pump.

“With our monitoring you are able to schedule maintenance,” Coertze says. “I think that’s what I’ve been talking to a few customers about for the last couple of days as well, that is really valuable to them.”

“And that also means that you don’t have to have maintenance people on site 24/7. So, they can all be offsite until the system pre-warns that the equipment has a detected problem.

“That means the specific person can go in for one job, do the job then leave again without stopping the machine because if he would have just run natively, he would then run into a breakdown and then have to fix it.”

Coertze predicts that it is only a matter of time before it is necessary for all mining companies to adopt automation technology.

“I think in this day and age you won’t be able to stop it – it will happen eventually. Also, it’s not a matter of will you adopt it, it’s a matter of when,” he says.

“These sort of sensor technologies are almost like purchasing insurance – you don’t really need it until you really need it.”