Separation - the most powerful risk mitigation control in mining today.
All of us should be familiar with the hierarchy of controls. Elimination, substitution, engineering, PPE, procedures
In the early years of my career, I was fortunate to find myself working with the US Army Bomb Disposal robots at Picatinny Arsenal in the USA. The US Army had made a huge investment in these robots as they provided the capability to separate EOD technicians from the extreme hazard of an improvised explosive device. The existing hierarchy of controls just didn’t cut it. You could not eliminate the hazard, nor could you substitute the hazard. The mission required the EOD team to engage directly with the hazard. The bomb suit was a hybrid combination of engineering and PPE – it provided some protection from high velocity fragments, but had limited effectiveness from overpressure. Finally, intensive training (administration) provided a level of protection in terms of maximizing the chance of survival.
What the robots provided was distance – separation. It allowed EOD technicians to engage with the hazard while being well outside the danger zone. This was a new control, amn incredibly powerful control that has saved many, many lives. Some, less informed, industry professionals with whom I have had the discussion, argue that a robot is simply an engineering control, but they are wrong. An engineering control is a cage that either contains the hazard ( motor guard) or shields the human (roll cage). If either of these controls breaks down, the hazard and the human are co-located. If a robot breaks down, the human is still safely outside the blast zone.
Similarly, in underground mining, we can neither eliminate or substitute the hazards that exist in our environment. Toxic gasses, seismicity, rockfall, outbursts are all deadly hazards that exist in underground mines, they are part and parcel of doing business in this space. We use engineering and administrative controls and PPE to protect our people from these hazards. As demand for copper and other minerals that will fuel the renewable energy revolution grows, mines will become larger, deeper and more remote. This will increase the number of personnel exposed to hazards and will increase the severity and frequency of hazards such as seismic events. The ability to conduct underground operations while minimising the number of humans underground will become a license to mine in the future. Has the industry invested in the technical capability to make this happen?
The term “Zero Entry Mining” is being used more widely and represents industry recognition that we must remove personnel from the underground environment. While we have now mastered remote and autonomous production drilling, bogging and haulage, there are still many tasks in the underground mine that rely on boots on the ground. These tasks include regulatory and production geotechnical inspections on a regular basis
ADR have been developing remote inspection, mapping and monitoring robots for the last five years and provide that capability to mining customers in Australia and around the world. These systems allow mine operators to complete underground inspection tasks without putting personnel in harm’s way. Where humans are required to access hazardous areas, such as confined space entry or while inspecting materials handling equipment, long and detailed isolation and recovery procedures are required that can take hours to complete. By conducting a remote inspection with a robot, no such procedures are required. Personnel are protected not by administrative procedures, but by being completely separated from the hazard. For example, a robot can be sent along a conveyor belt to provide a visual inspection of wear plates in chutes. The conveyor only needs to be run off and turned off, no lockout or tagging is necessary.
Similarly, when inspections are required of long culverts or return airways, a robot can be sent in without any requirement for confined entry procedures. LIDAR scans can be made of stopes after blasting without the requirement for ground support. This accelerates QA on drill and blast design and process.
Finally, what do we do when things go wrong?
The first thing we do when we have a seismic event is get everyone out. We have meetings with our team and the regulator and then, invariably, we end up agreeing to send in a senior geotech as they have the “experience” to conduct a safe entry and inspection. So, we send a human into what we have already defined as a hazardous area with the only “control” being administrative. If we had a robot, we can immediately send it in without waiting for regulator approval as there is no risk in doing this. We can conduct a detailed visual or LIDAR inspection from the control room or from a safe location and can determine the state of ground stability and support without putting anyone at risk. In most mines, the time and production saved by this approach would pay for the robot in a single use
This capability is available today. The power of separation is available to minimise risk to your personnel. Please reach out to ???? to take the next step