Gear-shift coming in underground automation race

A “race” for supremacy in the surface mining automation arena among suppliers of hardware and software has gained momentum in the past five years as robotic truck and drill fleets have multiplied. Haydn Roberts recalls a time when that contest really got started more than 20 years ago, and believes key lessons learned on a “1000 step journey” that started on a different technological footing could speed the new race for primacy in the growing underground mine automation market.

Gear-shift coming in underground automation race Gear-shift coming in underground automation race Gear-shift coming in underground automation race Gear-shift coming in underground automation race Gear-shift coming in underground automation race

MST CEO Haydn Roberts: “What I saw and what I was involved with in the late 90s is happening again now in that automation of the underground space which is now accelerating”

Roberts, CEO of the world's leading underground mining-focused information communications technology (ICT) company, MST Global, for the past five years, started his mining career underground in South Africa in the late 1980s.

A decade later he'd overseen the introduction of the industry's first GPS-based ‘real-time' fleet management system at Rio Tinto's big borates operation in California, and was witnessing first-hand in the US and elsewhere early equipment-manufacturer manoeuvring that marked the start of a long game for surface mining automation's key players. Whilst Roberts was at Borates he was responsible for integrating mine planning with fleet management and tried to acquire autonomous trucks before OEMs had dispatch and supervisory systems. These experiences shaped his journey with integrating multidisciplinary technology solutions.

Underpinned by reliable, low-latency communication channels that brought data-driven mine and asset management to surface mines much earlier than most underground operations, a roadmap for the surface mining automation era was drawn up early by some suppliers and miners. Valuable vehicle health and positioning data initially repaid investments in more advanced fleet management and guidance systems, but "what drove the technology [development] at that point in time was automation", according to Roberts, who joined Modular Mining Systems after it was snapped up by Komatsu in the late 1990s and went on to lead mining business transformations at Leica Geosystems and Hexagon Mining.

ome customers are going to walk some are going to run on this journey of 1000 steps"Some customers are going to walk, some are going to run, on this journey of 1000 steps"

Roberts says stuttering early steps down the automation path for miners, due to communications and computing shortcomings, changed to more confident strides as enabling technology developed by Komatsu, along with Rio Tinto brought a high-level strategic view and plan to operational change management a decade ago That started to give investors in the industry a picture of returns on massive capital outlays, and resources in the ground, they hadn't seen before. The wheels of broader industry change on the surface were well and truly in motion.

Still the dominant form of mining worldwide because of the huge scale of surface iron ore, coal, copper and gold extraction, open pit mining is giving way to deeper extraction in many of the world's primary mining centres. Environmental and social pressures are only going to speed that shift.

For Roberts, while the macro-level trends point to an ever more favourable outlook for mining technology companies - particularly specialists with the sort of market presence built up over many years by the likes of MST - it is the change that has already altered the landscape that is most heartening for someone who's been close to the "smart mine" digital transformation vanguard for nearly three decades.

"What I saw and what I was involved with in the late 90s is happening again now in that automation of the underground space which is now accelerating," Roberts says.

"The major equipment suppliers are all now in an automation race in the underground space.

"One of the things that is interesting for me is that, for many mine operators around the world a key challenge remains. You've got to have reliable, low-latency, high-bandwidth communications in place; you must have tracking capability so you can locate people and assets in that underground setting - which of course is different to the surface environment.

"We're on the same value-focused journey as our customers"

"If you don't get that right, all the mission-critical applications on top aren't going to work.

"For MST, which is working closely with a number of large and mid-tier miners around the world and has had to redefine our own business roadmap over the past five years, it is a journey of 1000 steps.

"We're on the same value-focused journey as our customers.

"Some customers are going to walk, some are going to run, on this journey of 1000 steps, and you've got to be able to help them do both. Every customer I've come across has a different pace, and a different stamina, and appetite for the journey, and they'll change the pace as they need to.

"But certainly now we're in a position we haven't been in before, and it's a point I've wanted to get to for a very long time.

"We have an open communications platform designed for underground mines that is agnostic in terms of edge devices, and applications. It is built to leverage current and next generation communication technologies. And now we have that real-time geospatial element there as well.

"That is a game-changer for underground mines, where you can't get a birds-eye view of what's happening in the pit by looking out a window, or through camera lenses. To track everything in real time, and to insert the mine plan in such a way that you can reference where you are and how you are doing, is a big shift.

"I am confident we have a platform that is flexible and robust enough to enable us to partner with any type of customer, no matter theirjourney."

Coming up next in the second part of this series: Technology and alliances re-setting the underground automation race, and how a pandemic has adjusted market settings.