Remote and autonomous mining technologies have grown from a high-tech niche to a dominant market position. This growth has been spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns put in place to stem it, increased pressure on mine operators to work as efficiently as possible due to economic circumstances, and the applicability of ruggedized technology to the harsh conditions of mining in the real world. A major mining company, Anglo American, was recently awarded for its innovative use of remote autonomous systems in longwall coal mining.
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What Is Longwall Coal Mining?
Longwall mining is a form of coal mining underground. In the longwall method, a long wall of coal is found and mined in a single slice between 50 cm and 6 m thick.
Longwall panels (the coal seam being mined) tend to be between 3 km and 4 km long but can extend as far as 7.5 km. They are usually between 250 m and 400 m in width.
A large cutting head or shearer traverses the coal seam, breaking it up and depositing coal onto a conveyor belt. Hydraulic roof supports prevent the mine roof from collapsing.
The longwall method can extract high percentages of the available coal seam (typically 80%) compared to other techniques, such as room and pillar mining (typically 60%). As a result of this efficiency, longwall mining for coal accounts for almost half of all underground mining operations.
Challenges of Longwall Coal Mining
While longwall coal mining tends to be more productive than other methods, there are still challenges to deal with. Chief among these is the health and safety of workers.
Workers in these mines are exposed to heavy machinery, hydraulic and electric power sources, potential roof collapses, gas exposure, and dust inhalation. Human workers are often required to ensure that machinery works properly, and coal extraction is carried out effectively.
The more tasks that can be automated or carried out by robots in longwall mining, the fewer human workers are needed in these hazardous conditions. Therefore, automation technologies have been a focus of research and development efforts for the last 50 years. As far back as the 1950s, the UK’s publicly owned mining company, the National Coal Board, proposed a remotely operated longwall face to protect workers.
However, longwall mining remained manual throughout the 20th century while technology caught up to the requirements of automated longwall operations. Since the millennium, discrete elements of the longwall operation have become automated.
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is a government-run scientific research agency.
CSIRO’s Coal Mining Research Program recently outlined four challenging areas for automation development in longwall mining. These were published in the International Journal of Mining Science and Technology.
The areas include:
- Human experience and awareness
Anglo American’s Award-Winning Remote Longwall Coal Mining Operations
Anglo American is a leading mining firm with operations worldwide, including longwall mining sites extracting coal for the steel industry in Queensland, Australia’s Bowen Basin.
The company recently deployed automatic technologies so that four of these mines could be operated remotely, physically removing human workers from the hazardous locations.
The technology was deployed at Moranbah North, Grosvenor, Aquila, and Grasstree mines.
Anglo American also worked with partners Restech, Aurecon, Komatsu, Eickhoff, Marco, and G-Tick Systems to automate these operations.
As a result of this innovative use of automated technologies, Anglo American recently won a Queensland Mining Award for collaboration. The industry awards recognize excellence by companies and individuals in the state’s mining sector.
Anglo American was also a finalist in this category for its collision avoidance technology. Other finalists were MacKellar Mining and Bravus for their project at Carmichael Coal Mine, and Polymathian, CQCN Rail Haulage Providers, and Spark Logic for their work optimizing the central Queensland coal network.
More Automation for Longwall Coal Mining’s Future
This award will likely gain interest in remote technologies for longwall coal mining worldwide. Remote and autonomous longwall operations could drastically improve safety in underground mining by physically removing workers from these dangerous environments.
Workers are typically not made redundant as a result of this automation, however. Instead, they can be retrained to work in remote operations centers and carry out their previous roles digitally and from a safe distance.
Glencore is another global mining company that has embraced automation for longwall coal mining.
The firm has been using autonomous longwall technology at its Oaky Creek metallurgical coal mine in Queensland since 2013.
This technology was developed by Australia’s CSIRO, and incorporates ExScan technology, which enabled the longwall mine to be fully automated. The Oaky Creek site also has a surface-level control center.
Coal miners around the world are rapidly adopting longwall automation technology. This fits in with a broader trend across industries toward more digitization, automation, and distributed control enabled by computing.
Continue reading: The Importance of Robotics for Mining Safety
References and Further Reading
2022 Winners. (2022) [Online] Queensland Mining Awards. Available at: https://qldminingawards.com/2022-winners/ (Accessed on 19 December 2022).
Anglo American’s Remote Operations Wins Queensland Mining Collaboration Award. (2022) [Online] Anglo American. Available at: https://australia.angloamerican.com/media/press-releases/pr-2022/winner-collaboration-remote-operation (Accessed on 19 December 2022).
Longwall Mining. [Online] GreatMining.com. Available at: https://www.greatmining.com/longwall-mining.html (Accessed on 19 December 2022).
Longwall mining demands safety and reliability in equipment. (2014) [Online] Mining.com. Available at: https://www.mining.com/web/longwall-mining-demands-safety-and-reliability-in-equipment/ (Accessed on 19 December 2022).
Parker, T., (2021). Glencore autonomous longwall online at Oaky Creek. [Online] Australian Mining. Available at: https://www.australianmining.com.au/news/glencore-autonomous-longwall-online-at-oaky-creek/ (Accessed on 19 December 2022).
Ralston, J.C., C.O. Hargrave, and M.T. Dunn (2017). Longwall automation: trends, challenges and opportunities. International Journal of Mining Science and Technology. doi.org/10.1016/j.ijmst.2017.07.027.