To serve you better, our new website displays information specific to your location.
Please visit the site and bookmark it for future use.

Technology imperative to improve operations, safety in deep mines

The following interview with SRK Principal Geotechnical Engineer / Partner / Chairman William Joughin was one of the sources for the Mining Weekly article Technology imperative to improve operations, safety in deep mines

Modern Technology - The application of digital instruments can help to implement practical solutions in the underground working environment

1.       What project is the company currently undertaking in South Africa or Africa in underground mining and what is the scope of the work?

South Africa has been the focus of SRK Consulting’s deep-level mining work for the past four decades, as this is home to the world’s deepest mines; SRK really established itself on the strength of its geotechnical expertise in these deep mines. It is interesting to note that, while the rest of the world refers to anything more than a 1,000 m as a deep mine, in SA we refer to a mine as deep-level only when it exceeds about 2,000 m; a mine that is more than 3,000 m deep is then called ultra-deep-level. Only Canada has mines that approach the depth of ours.

SRK has provided its rock engineering expertise to deep mines all over the world; in one of our African projects, we are working with an underground mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on a feasibility study relating to the deepening of their operations to around 1,600 m below surface.

SRK’s contribution to these projects relates mainly to designing mining layouts and mine support systems, as well as conducting reviews, due diligence studies and accident investigations. We are also often asked for our opinion with regard to challenging and high-risk aspects of the mine planning process, such as the extraction of shaft pillars and remnants.

2.       What are the latest technologies available and how is this going to change or improve operations efficiency?

No comment on this question.

3.       South Africa has experienced a number deaths in underground mining. What are the new or improved safety procedures that you can recommend.

With regard to safety, one of the main drives in mines today is to remove workers from risky areas close to the working face. This has been done very successfully in many underground mines, but is more difficult in deep South African mines due to the shallow dipping, narrow-reef mining environment. There continues to be efforts to automate mining methods in these narrow stopes, which usually needs to be done in conjunction with a change in mining layout.

4.       How can automation and smart technology help to improve mining operations and safety?

SRK’s work in advancing and applying smart technology is improving our ability to delineate geological structures more accurately, because a key aspect of the mining environment that affects safety is the variability of rock mass characteristics over time and space. Our understanding of variability can be improved by collecting more data and improving the quality of this data through training and quality control; technologies such as photogrammetry give us this ‘big data’ capability, and can also feed into a more effective, risk-based design approach.

Developments in mobile mapping allow us to survey underground tunnels, for instance, to monitor deformation over time. Using older technology would take weeks to achieve what we can now do in just a day – giving us information to design more effective support solutions.

So it is vital that the mining sector develops these smart technologies, and we work with a number of partners – such as the Australian Centre for Geomechanics (ACG) at the University of Western Australia in Perth – as part of this development process. The mXRap project with ACG aims to manage seismic hazards, which are particularly dangerous to deep mines; a range of apps is being developed to analyse seismic information with the aim of improving safety levels.

5.       How can the operator mitigate the risks of rock falls and explosives?

No comment on this question.

6.       What is the best method to reduce complexities and simplify the mining process?

No comment on this question.

7.       What are the key challenges associated with underground mining that you would like to highlight?

The challenges associated with rock engineering are – alongside mine ventilation – key to the safety and viability of deep-level mining. To mine successfully, practical solutions are developed and applied to keep excavations stable under the enormous pressures associated with mining at depth; these solutions need to carefully balance risk and cost, while prioritising the safety of personnel. These solutions must also protect the mine’s infrastructure such as shafts, so the design must ensure sufficient distance from stress concentrations and hazardous geological structures.

The application of modern technology can help us to do this – but it is no easy task to introduce sensitive digital instruments into the underground working environment. Factors such as moisture, heat, dust and confined spaces all militate against the simple introduction of hi-tech equipment. Operating conditions underground demand that this new equipment becomes much more robust before it can operate effectively over long periods of time; but this is all part of the evolution process that we must all continue to pursue, in the interests of safer and more productive mining at depth.

Acknowledgement: Mining Weekly_Donald Makhafola




SRK Africa