Underground coal mining safety improves with 3D laser-scanning technology

Underground coal mining safety improves with 3D laser-scanning technology

With a click of a mouse, Michael Condie is calmly slicing giant slabs of earth with enormous machinery at least 300 meters underground from where he sits.

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

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

Working as the automation coordinator at Glencore’s Oaky Creek mine in central Queensland, Mr Condie said remotely mining the longwall had always been the goal of the underground mine, which produces metallurgical coal for export, to make steel.

Michael Condie says the technology is making underground longwall coal mining safer.(ABC Capricornia: Katrina Beavan)

The system is designed to remove more miners away from high-risk situations, working next to heavy machinery, a 16-kilometer-underground drive from the office controls.

“We’ve still got a small crew of people underground, but they are away from the hazardous areas of the machines,” Mr Condie said.

The company now mines like this, with a click of a button, thanks to CSIRO 3D laser-scanning technology called ExScan, which it first started developing in 2017, funded by the Australian Coal Industry’s Research Program (ACARP).

“[It gives] operators a view of what’s underground, without actually having to be there,” said Mark Dunn, principal research engineer with the CSIRO’s mining technologies group.

“[From] a screen, sitting in a remote-control office, you can actually get the same information as if you were standing there next to that machinery in a deep-underground environment,” Dr Dunn said.

A man in a high-vis shirt sitting down in front of a wall of computers, looking at them
From the surface, employees control 3D-scanning equipment.(ABC Capricornia: Katrina Beavan)

World-first technology expands

First trialled at the mine north of Blackwater in central Queensland in 2019, the technology is now in use in at least 10 mines across Australia and several overseas, including the United States.

The advances in technology, allowing for almost fully automated mining, is something automation engineer Duane Witkowski could not have imagined 20 years ago when he first started out in the industry.

“There wasn’t the technology available to be able 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’s going.”

A man in yellow high-vis looking at the camera
Automation engineer Duane Witkowski says mining has changed a lot in 20 years.(ABC Capricornia: Katrina Beavan)

Dr Dunn said the need for safety was a big driver overall in the CSIRO’s mining research and advances.

“Our big dream over the next few years is to ensure that there are no operators working underground in these dark and dynamic environments,” he said.

“Getting the tools and the utilities out into the industry and out commercialized through third parties is absolutely vital to improve the safety.”

Dr Mark Dunn sits in a darkened room in front of a virtual reality screen showing an underground coal mine.
Mark Dunn says the ExScan technology can be adapted for use in other industries. (Supplied: CSIRO)

According to Resources Safety and Health Queensland, in the five years to June 2022, there were 356 serious incidents in Queensland’s coal mines (both surface and underground).

Ten people lost their lives.

A “serious incident” means a person had to be admitted to hospital for treatment of the injury, or they died.

Not just for mining

Dr Dunn said the technology was also being trialled at open-cut mines and in the civil engineering industry space, particularly with tunneling.

“There are limitations on where coal mining may be in the future, but there’s always going to be a need for remote operation systems,” he said.

“Having any sensors or technologies that can assist humans being able to control equipment that is in a potentially dangerous environment is always going to be of value.

“The application is probably less important, it’s more about providing that human interface to the machines.

“For example, in agriculture, there are potentially explosive environments… this sort of technology could absolutely be used as well.”