Using innovation to keep safe

THE underground coal mining industry will likely be forced to adopt robotics and automation if it wants to manage the twin issues of dust and safety, Hogsback believes.
Using innovation to keep safe Using innovation to keep safe Using innovation to keep safe Using innovation to keep safe Using innovation to keep safe

The Queensland government - along with the unions and industry - have come together to reset the state's safety standards after the tragic death of six mine workers over the past 12 months in that state.

Also, the scourge of black lung has resurfaced in the Queensland coal mining industry, which has necessitated a fresh approach to monitoring and treating the disease.

However, the question must be asked: will all this well-meaning discussion fundamentally change the intrinsic danger of having personnel in a hostile environment where the threats of dust, gas, and geotechnical risks exist?

A longwall mine has taken automation to underground coal mining but it is 20th century technology that was mostly designed about 40 years ago.

There has been some refinement of techniques for coal mines with certain conditions such as longwall top coal caving but even these innovations had their problems when applied in Australian mines and have mostly failed to live up to their expectations.

The leap the underground coal mining industry must make to protect its workers is the exclusive use of robots and drones to monitor and control mining.

The operations should be run externally at a central point in the same way that some large open cut operations are in the iron ore industry.

Queensland University head of mechanical and mining engineering school Peter Knights is a big advocate of "zero-entry mining" where personnel are not subject to the risks underground.

His other recent work has focused on mine data analytics and the reliability and planning issues associated with novel mining systems.

Fellow professor and Australian Droid and Robot director Dr Joe Cronin has developed underground robots and drones that use WiFi technology from Rajant that can operate in dynamic underground environments.

Under this system, miners would have no need to enter the mine and would use remote "telepresence" technology to manage the operations. While this equipment is not yet ready to be used in underground coal environments, it provides a glimpse of the future.  

Cronin's company's motto is "Safety by separation".

Given the enormity of the dust problem in underground coal environments and the unpredictability of incidents involving men and machinery, this is a motto that could probably be used by the entire industry.