Since CSIRO launched its LASC longwall automation system commercially about eight years ago, four mines in the US and about 30 in China have taken it up, in addition to at least 20 of Australia's 30 underground coal mines.

The CSIRO-developed longwall automation system (LASC) not only improves mine safety by removing people from the hazardous environment near the coal face, but also increases productivity by up to 10 per cent.

A graphical representation of longwall automation technology.

In the longwall process 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 which 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.

Automation of this process required the ability to determine the equipment's position accurately in three dimensions. But GPS technology cannot be used underground, so CSIRO researchers resorted to the highly precise inertial navigation systems developed to guide ballistic missiles during the pre-GPS days of the Cold War.

The LASC system is now manufactured both by Hetech in Brisbane and also in a less expensive 'Lite' form by a company in China. The Lite version, which uses lower performance sensors, can still carry out most of the same tasks.

"The underlying face-straightening system is identical," CSIRO's leader of the LASC team, Peter Reid, says. Ten LASC Lite units are being installed at Chinese mine sites over the next year.

CSIRO has licensed the LASC systems to most of the major international suppliers of coal mining equipment – Joy Global, Caterpillar, Eickhoff, Kopex, Nepean Longwall and China Coal Technology and Engineering Group – to use in their products.

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