3D laser scanning improves safety in underground coal mining

With just a click of the mouse, Michael Condie can calmly slice through huge blocks of dirt with his gigantic machinery, at least 300 meters underground from where he sits.

Thanks to recent technological advances, this modern longwall mining scene is a far cry from the underground coal mining imagery of yesteryear, when workers emerged from the literal face of the coal, covered in dust.

“These guys are basically mining coal all the way from the surface,” Mr Conti said.

Mr Condie, automation coordinator at Glencore’s Oaky Creek mine in central Queensland, said remote mining of the longwall had been a target for the underground mine, which produces metallurgical coal for export and used in steelmaking.

A man in a bold yellow shirt looks at a camera next to a wall of computer screens as he clicks a mouse.
Michael Condie says the technology makes underground longwall mining safer.(ABC Capricorn: Katrina Bevan)

The system is designed to keep more miners out of the high-risk environment, working next to heavy machinery, on an underground drive 16 kilometers from office controls.

“We still have a small number of people underground, but they’re out of the danger zone of the machines,” Mr Conti said.

The company can now mine like this thanks to CSIRO’s 3D laser scanning technology called ExScan, which was first developed in 2017, funded by the Australian Coal Industry Research Program (ACARP).

“[It gives] Mark Dunn, Principal Research Engineer, CSIRO’s Mining Technology Group, said:

“[From] Sitting on a screen in a remote control office, you can actually get the same information as if you were standing next to the machine deep underground,” said Dr Dunn.

A man in a highly reflective shirt sits in front of a computer wall and looks at them
On the face of it, employees control the 3D scanning equipment.(ABC Capricorn: Katrina Bevan)

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The technology, which was first trialed in 2019 at a mine north of Blackwater in central Queensland, is now in use at at least 10 mines in Australia and overseas, including the US.

Technological advances have made possible nearly fully automated mining, something automation engineer Duane Witkowski could not have imagined when he first set foot in the industry 20 years ago.

“There is no technology available to do those functions that we currently have,” he said.

“[But] I think it’s like anything…it’s just a given function of where the world is going. “

Yellow highly visible man looking at camera
Automation engineer Duane Witkowski said a lot has changed in the mining industry in 20 years.(ABC Capricorn: Katrina Bevan)

Dr Dunn said the need for safety was an overall driver of CSIRO’s mining research and progress.

“Our big dream for the next few years is to make sure that no operator is working in these dark and dynamic environments,” he said.

“Bringing tools and utilities into industry and commercializing them through third parties is absolutely critical to improving safety.”

Dr. Mark Dunn sits in a darkened room in front of a virtual reality screen showing an underground coal mine.
Mark Dunn said the ExScan technology could be applied to other industries. (Provided by: CSIRO)

In the five years to June 2022, there have been 356 serious incidents at Queensland coal mines (surface and underground), according to Resources Safety and Health Queensland.

Ten people lost their lives.

A “serious incident” is when a person must be hospitalized for injuries or they will die.

not just mining

Dr Dunn said the technology was also being trialled in open pit mines and the civil engineering industry, particularly in tunneling.

“The location of coal mining in the future may be limited, but there will always be a need for remote operating systems,” he said.

“It’s always valuable to have any sensor or technology that can help humans control equipment in potentially dangerous environments.

“The application may be less important than providing a human-machine interface to the machine.

“In agriculture, for example, where there are potentially explosive environments … this technology could definitely be used as well.”

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