Aussies have eyes on world’s first fully autonomous underground gold mine in Africa’s Mali
The Australian gold miner building the world’s first fully autonomous underground mine is set to begin production in Africa, and experts say miners on home soil are watching closely.
The rollout of driverless trucks, loaders and drills at the $US223 million Syama gold mine in Mali should be complete before the end of the year.
Perth-based Resolute Mining said the only jobs likely to go in the shake-up are the highly-paid foreign workers being flown in at great cost, with the 1,500-strong workforce made up of about 80 overseas professionals.
“Rather than focusing on putting in wells in local villages and handing out school books, we’re focused on upskilling, training and empowering the local workforce,” Resolute’s managing director John Welborn said.
The technological revolution was a major talking point at this week’s Diggers and Diggers Mining Forum in Australia’s unofficial gold mining capital of Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Automation is now entrenched in the mining industry in WA’s iron ore rich Pilbara, but the advances in technology have taken longer to adapt to the challenges of underground mining.
Automation ‘not about cutting jobs’
Mr Welborn estimated the rollout of automated equipment at Syama will cost an additional $10-$15 million upfront, but he said it will boost productivity, cut mining costs by up to 30 per cent and increase safety.
There will be about 22 pieces of automated equipment operating at Syama.
“Automation is often seen through the prism of a vehicle factory where you blow the whistle and sack 200 of your assembly line workers and replace them with robots or a large group of sewing machine operators who can be replaced by a machine,” Mr Welborn said.
“That’s not how we see automation.
“I often get asked about the political impacts of automation in Africa, with the perception that governments will be concerned we’re laying off workers.
“What we’re doing has very little to do with reducing workforce — it has everything to do with efficiency and productivity.”
Aussie automation takes lead from the Pilbara giants
Mining giant Rio Tinto has led the way with automation in Australia at its Pilbara iron ore operations.
In July, Rio Tinto completed its first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train.
Three locomotives carried around 28,000 tonnes of iron ore over 280 kilometres from Rio Tinto’s mining operations in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert.
The load was monitored remotely from Rio Tinto’s Operations Centre in Perth, more than 1,500 kilometres away.
Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group is playing catch-up with 60 autonomous trucks currently working at its Solomon operations in the Pilbara.
In April, Fortescue begun the conversion of 100 haul trucks at its Chichester Hub to driverless controls in a program that will eventually see its entire fleet automated.
Miners keeping a close eye on Syama rollout
The next frontier is underground, and Sandvik’s Asia Pacific business line manager for load and haul Malcolm Mauger said most of the sector was embracing the change.
The Swedish mining equipment supplier has been engaged by Resolute to automate Syama.
Their agreement covers the delivery of mobile equipment and training workers to operate and maintain the equipment.
“In Australia we’re seeing a lot of [automation] already … what they’ve done in Africa is put it together in one package,” Mr Mauger said.
“We have pockets of excellence here in Australia … but no-one’s put it all together yet.
“I think everyone’s interested to see how [Syama] all goes together, everyone’s very curious.”
NSW mine was leader in underground automation
The Northparkes copper-gold mine in NSW achieved what its owners claimed as a world-first in 2015, reaching 100 per cent automation underground.
Driverless loaders, remotely controlled from the surface, load ore and transport it to an underground crusher where it is conveyed and hoisted to the surface.
The key difference with the Syama underground mine is that automated haul trucks are being added to the mix for the first time.
A fibre optic system will be installed throughout the mine, allowing the operation to install sophisticated mobile equipment monitoring and guidance systems.
“There’s always an upfront cost — you can never get away from that — but you do get a payback in the back end, and you get it in safety, production, fuel savings, maintenance savings,” Mr Mauger said.
“Strangely enough it’s not that much more than a normal ramp-up.”
Old mining jobs make way for new roles
Underground contractor Byrnecut is one of the most advanced down the road with various levels of automation in place at the Jundee, De Grussa and Telfer mines in WA.
Westrac also has automation capability with its fleet of underground loaders but has not combined the technology for underground trucks yet.
Mr Mauger said the technology will cost truck drivers their jobs but will create different roles.
“The jobs you lose are obviously the operators, but they get replaced in maintenance and data science because people want their data,” he said.
“Automation can lower costs and actually keep mines running for longer.
“We’re in a situation now where mines are going really deep, we’ve got hot temperatures, you don’t want to have your people exposed to it and there’s also emissions.”
Workers will adapt to ‘alien’ technology
Mr Welborn said automation is easier to achieve in new purpose-built mines like Syama.
The former Australian Rugby Union representative, accountant and investment banker said the technology was user friendly, which is vital for Resolute’s African workforce.
“My 80-year-old mother texts me, surfs the internet and sends me links off her iPhone, and we forget how amazing that is,” he said.
“She’s never had an instruction manual on how to use an iPhone and comes from a generation where the concept of that technology is totally alien, and yet the intuitive nature of that amazing device allows her to pick one up and operate it quite easily.
“To link that story into Syama, we now have an all-Mali bogging crew that operates Sandvik machinery.
“Our confidence in using an all-national crew is because they’re operating very high-quality machinery, they’re looking at an LCD display, driving the machine up to the rock face and the machine then drills out a cut … and has excellent efficiency.
“That’s what automation is in an African context — an ability to increase your productivity, lengthen out maintenance times, increase safety, reduce diesel emissions, and do all of those things in a way that upskills your local workforce.”