This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
This would’ve been the stuff of wild imaginings just a few years ago: a fully automated mine with not a soul in sight, except in a control room located on the surface.
Operating at more than a kilometre underground at the Syama mine in Mali, driverless laser-guided vehicles make their way from the surface along decline ramps to rendezvous with driverless loaders to collect ore and return to the surface where it is crushed, milled and processed.
“This is a world first for automated mining,” says John Welborn, CEO of Australia-based Resolute Mining, which expects to produce 300 000 ounces of gold a year once underground production kicks off at Syama in June this year. Speaking at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town this week, Welborn outlined how technology in mining has finally entered the digital age. Syama, with a projected 14-year life span, expects to produce gold for an all-in cost of US$746 an ounce. That’s a fabulous price for an underground mine in today’s market.
A single operator sitting in a control room on the surface can supervise up to eight trucks remotely, ensuring there is minimal truck downtime.
Resolute acquired the dormant Syama mine from Randgold Resources in 2004 at a time when the gold price was US$350/oz, a fraction of its current level. This has turned out to be a sweet deal for Resolute, which subsequently discovered vast underground resources that became payable as the gold price improved.
Though drilling and blasting can also be fully automated, this is the one area where Syama will continue to employ humans, says Tal Zarum, head of programmes automation at Sandvik, which is partnering with Resolute to develop autonomous mining solutions. While most mines are happy to shave 2% or 3% off production costs, Syama will be 20% to 30% more efficient than conventional mining methods. Gold miners around the world must be watching this with envy.
One major efficiency at Syama is the virtual elimination of ‘smoke hours’ after blasting, where dust is required to settle before miners can return to the newly blasted area. Driverless trucks are guided by lasers rather than visual cues, so the presence of dust does not interrupt their progress. On the mine surface they are guided by GPS.
“The typical mine operator on the surface communicates with teams underground by radio, but has no way to see where the teams and trucks are located,” says Zarum. “With automated mining, we have CCTV and sensor data which is relayed to the control room on the surface. The control room operator can visualise the location of all underground assets in real time.”
Underground mapping data is relayed in real time to the surface, allowing the operator to adjust mining priorities by, for example, shifting mining activity to higher or lower grade ore as economic circumstances dictate.
Welborn points out that a common argument against automated mining is that it displaces workers. “We are creating jobs where there were none before,” he says. The miner of the future must be tech-savvy and equipped with different skills than the miner of yesterday. Needless to say, an autonomous mine virtually eliminates human accidents and fatalities due to the need for fewer underground personnel.
Driverless machines are less prone to breakdown and therefore last longer. Production can be stepped up without the need for additional infrastructure, with mining optimised from the control room, resulting in less variation in output than is the case with traditional mining. Automated mining delivers several extra hours of production a day, and trucks are fitted with data collection capabilities so that information can be visualised by the control room operator at any time.
The above ground processing plant is likewise state-of-the-art and optimised for maximum efficiency.
Welborn points out that major new gold finds in the vicinity of Syama could potentially expand both the output and life of the mine.
This is not the first time automated mining has been employed in Africa. The Finsch diamond mine in the Northern Cape adopted Sandvik-designed automated haulage in 2005. Sandvik has 28 similar projects around the world.
What does this mean for SA’s deep level gold mines, parts of which are simply too costly and dangerous to mine? Zarum says the more difficult the operating conditions, the better suited they are for automated mining. “The mining industry has been slow to adopt new technology, so we see the Syama mine as a great example of what can be done with automated mining.”
Perhaps SA’s declining gold sector could squeeze out a few more decades of production as technology such as this gets a chance to prove its mettle.