Despite great strides in health and safety regulations, mining remains an inherently dangerous profession, with the enclosure of workers underground presenting a range of threats, from collapsed tunnels to exploding hardware. With this in mind, many mining companies and technology manufacturers have invested in remotely operated technology and automated systems to sidestep these entrenched risks by removing workers from mines altogether.

Australia’s national science research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has been at the forefront of this trend, already investing in projects such as remote tracking technologies and smart drones to map underground mines. Now, the organisation has announced its latest innovation, a laser-based scanner known as ExScan that could enable workers to map out entire mine complexes from the surface, removing the need for people or even automated drones to enter the subterranean tunnels.

Developed in line with safety requirements put forward by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and already trialled at mining majors such as Glencore, the combination of intricate design and industry support could see the scanner make a significant impact in the Australian mining industry.

Safe scanning and clever containing

CSIRO has a well-established history of using tracking technology in mines and subterranean environments; its wireless ad hoc system for positioning (WASP), first deployed in 2013, enables above-ground operators to track the relative positions of employees whose equipment is fitted with tags feeding information back to the surface. The WASP system also enables employees to be placed within a three-dimensional map of a mining complex, and the ExScan technology is the logical extension of this model, as it can create these complex maps and blueprints in real time.

The scanner itself is a small, roughly cylindrical unit 25 centimetres tall, with a clear polycarbonate dome on the top. The laser sits beneath and emits lasers through the plastic dome, which can penetrate rock and mineral deposits to ‘see’ beyond the range of conventional GPS systems, building up a three-dimensional map of a mine in real time, as the scanner moves through the subterranean tunnels.

The design of the scanner’s casing, however, is perhaps the project’s most impressive technological accomplishment from a safety perspective, with CSIRO saying that the “real innovation” is “not the smart laser-based scanner, but the container in which it sits.” One of the greatest dangers for underground mine workers is that of an explosive spark, triggered by the concentration of particular metals, or the build-up of static charges on surfaces such as plastic, interacting with dust and particulate matter in the air.

report published in CIM Bulletin found that these sparks can cause explosions hotter than 2,000°C, and the nature of underground tunnels can make sheltering from such detonations impossible, and raise the possibility of a collapsed ceiling trapping or injuring workers. To overcome these risks, the ExScan casing is made of steel, a metal which lacks the aluminium, magnesium and titanium elements that are the most dangerous with regards to triggering explosions, and the plastic dome can be easily removed from the unit and replaced, should it become damaged or scratched and begin to collect a static charge.