8 Things You Didn’t Know About Gold Mining Automation

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Gold Mining Automation
8 Things You Didn’t Know About Gold Mining Automation

Innovations in automation have transformed the gold mining industry by increasing efficiency, productivity and safety. As mines get increasingly deeper, grades increasingly decline and investors pressure companies to adhere to global environment, social and governance principles, such innovations are necessary for the industry to prosper.
Over 1,600 mines around the world have closed in the wake of COVID-19, and fears spreading that mines could become super-spreader zones if any new strains of the virus take hold, remote mining and automation technologies offer solutions that have enabled the industry to keep going in the face of rising concerns.
Automation innovations have allowed gold miners to adapt to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and thrive despite the virus.

8 things you didn't know about mining automation

Mining outfits worldwide continue to innovate automation and digitization technologies to improve all aspects of their operations.

1. Driverless ore trains: Optimizing transport
Rio Tinto employs driverless ore trains in the Pilbara region of Western Australia to haul iron ore from their source to the company's port facilities. This constitutes the first long-distance, heavy-haul autonomous rail operation in the world.

These trains function by fitting locomotives with software linked to onboard cameras to facilitate real-time monitoring from surface control.

2. Analytics: Scouting for human safety
Using analytics technologies, mines can improve safety and efficiency by taking safety procedures that are typically monitored on location manually and digitizing them.

For example, analytics can determine which portions of a mine are unsafe for humans to work in without expensive ventilation and are better suited for intelligent machines to operate.

Averting the need for expensive ventilation reduces costs and grants a potential 20% reduction in carbon emissions from mining operations.

3. Artificial intelligence and machine learning: Automated monitoring
Technologies like AI and machine learning help mining personnel to track, monitor, and respond in a more timely manner to potential disruptions to normal operations.

One operation making effective use of digitization tools, Gold Fields, uses intelligent machinery and sensors to provide operators with live data of ore to be mined. They can, for example, set drill holes to lay explosive charges where they would be most effective rather than depending on a human drill operator.

4. Autonomous haul trucks: Improving safety and efficiency
Driverless trucks have moved beyond remote control operators. Miners can now program intelligent autonomous trucks to haul ore through dangerous portions of a mine without putting human operators at risk.

The predictability and consistency of machine operations not only allow them to operate with far less oversight but also allows for better identification and neutralization of potential hazards.

5. Trackless transport: Freedom to go anywhere
Through such innovations as laser guidance and GPS technology, miners can now transport loads back up the channel without the need for cumbersome, costly, and limited tracks.

6. Drones: Mapping, inspection and beyond
Some companies have begun successfully using drone technology to navigate sections of mines and caves previously unexplored. With drones, it’s easier and safer to map caves and identify their mining potential and accessibility. Whether employed individually or in a swarm, these drones use lidar technology to produce 3D maps of the tunnels they plumb.

Drone technology makes it possible to capitalize on mines that may otherwise be considered too difficult or hazardous to reach or take too long to survey. Drones can also overcome a weakness of GPS technology in that they can function even when satellite connections are inaccessible.

7. Dry stacking: Reclaiming soil
Dry stacking is a more sustainable method of storing filtered tailings than conventional methods. Through dry stacking, tailings compacted into a mound are subsequently reclaimed with native vegetation and soil.

To ensure effective tailing depositions throughout the life of a mine, operations like Agnico make use of dry-stack tailings facilities to help minimize the footprint of tailing depositions operations and replace less environmentally-sound alternatives.

8. Fully-automated extraction: Heralding the future
For an example of how a mining outfit might employ autonomous and digitization innovations across all aspects of its operation, consider Syama, a 2.4 Mtpa sublevel cave operation in South Africa.

All of Syama’s drilling, loading, and dumping are all automated. Operators remain in a control room on the surface. This setup avoids the risks miners can face underground and the inefficiencies of shift-changes and other drawbacks of manpower.

The system employs a wireless network that covers the entire mine and a fiber-optic backbone to link the entire channel from portal to haulage levels to the surface control room.

At the base of ore passes, automated loaders collect the ore and load them onto automated trucks. Through laser guidance and GPS, the trucks ascend from the split-level loading area up to the portal exit.

Summary: Gold mining’s future is here

Innovations in mining automation also make it possible for workforces to better diversify with surface-based, remote technologies allowing for such potential workers as those with disabilities or family concerns who might otherwise be prohibited from taking work in the mining industry.

Even more automation for gold mining is on the horizon, like truckless conveyor-belt ore transport systems and subterranean electric vehicles. With these technologies, mining companies can widen their profit margins. Agnico Eagle Mines, for example, posted record production for the last quarter of 2020 at its LaRonde and Kittila gold mines after implementing autonomous hauling and loading tech.

About The Author

Toni Allen is a contributor and editor at Commodity.com, a leading resource on commodities markets and trading.

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