After success on home soil, Australian automated longwall technology has taken to the international stage in coal mines in the United States. Tim Thwaites reports.

Intelligent mining and ore management article from resourceful: Issue 6, March 2014

Shearing machine with large rotating cutting drums, which is driven back and forth across the coal seam, can be automated with our LASC technology for increased safety and productivity.  © JES STUDIO

CSIRO’s longwall automation technology can deliver productivity increases of up to 10 per cent, but it also provides scope for much more than increased productivity – it can also improve safety by reducing the level of hands-on interaction of miners with machinery in hazardous underground areas.

‘That’s why more than 20 of the 30 or so longwall systems in Australia are already operating with, or are about to embed, the CSIRO technology,’ says Dr David Hainsworth, who leads CSIRO’s mining science and engineering research program.

A global equipment manufacturer has now taken the technology to the United States and the same company is now evaluating the technology for other global markets.

In the longwall process – which accounts for about 90 per cent of Australia’s underground coal production – a shearing machine with large rotating cutting drums is driven back and forth across the coal seam. With each pass a massive ‘slice’ of coal is ground off, falling onto a conveyor system that transports it away from the face.

Clearly, alignment of the machine is critical to its performance and in the past the machinery had to be stopped and adjusted every so often. This risky job was carried out manually.

In the late 1990s, CSIRO researchers came up with – and patented – an idea for automating the process, at the same time as the industry-backed funding body, the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP), independently decided that automation was a priority for the future.

‘The resulting research program was a resounding success, not only in terms of innovation, but also as a model of implementation,’ says Dr Hainsworth.

‘The industry, equipment manufacturers and researchers all worked together. Having industry champions for the introduction of new technologies is essential.

‘The involvement of ACARP meant support from mining companies for field testing of ideas and prototypes when needed.’

Automation requires the ability to determine the equipment’s position accurately in three dimensions, in order to plan and control its movements. GPS technology cannot be used underground, so the researchers resorted to highly precise inertial navigation systems developed to guide ballistic missiles and tanks during the pre-GPS days of the Cold War.

Second, the position of the machinery has to be communicated to its controllers and subsequent adjustments back to the machine. CSIRO developed a communication system based on the commercial implementation of its own WiFi ethernet.

Finally, ACARP demanded an open communication protocol to enable all the elements involved in automation to communicate with each other no matter from which manufacturer they came.

Dr Hainsworth says the most important thing to emerge from the project was the commercialisation model.

‘The technology had to be delivered to the industry as an integral part of longwall mining equipment, not just an add-on, and it could not be exclusive to just one manufacturer – this was an ACARP requirement. Finally, as a research organisation, CSIRO could not support this technology directly in the field,’ he says.

Fortunately, the equipment manufacturers saw that the industry was committed, and that they needed to buy into this technology, so they accepted a non-exclusive licensing model.

The real key was CSIRO’s initiative to use part of its IP revenue to provide guaranteed technical assistance to each manufacturer early in the lifetime of the system.

The manufacturers recognised that not only had they avoided development costs, but the system would be supported through its teething period and continually upgraded by the people who understood it best.

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