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The challenge

Balancing productivity with safety

[Music plays, a computerised image appears of a miner in a mining machine that is digging down below the ground]

Narrator:  Australia has a long and profitable history of digging stuff up.  We’re very good at it.  But it’s still a very dangerous activity.  The less humans we can stick underground, the better.  About 90% of underground coal mining uses a process called longwall. 

[Text appears on screen:  90% longwall]

[Image changes to show an increasing currency value] 

It contributes $7 billion to Australia’s export income every year.

[Image changes to show a computerised image of a shearer machine working underground] 

Miners carefully drive a machine with large rotating cutting drums back and forth across a coal seam.  With each pass a massive slice of coal is ground off.  It falls onto a conveyor belt and is transported away from the coalface.  It’s a great technique, but it puts workers in one of the most dangerous places in the mine – underneath a roof supported by hydraulic jacks.

[Image changes to show a computerised image of a miner working underground, and looking up towards a supported roof] 

So we figured out how to automate it and created the LASC, Longwall Automation System.

[Text appears on screen:  LASC] 

It automatically guides the shearer along the coal seam wall, tracking its position in three dimensions.

[Image changes to show a computerised image of a shearer machine and varying co-ordinates appear to the left of the screen] 

With no access to GPS underground it’s instead guided with an evolved form of inertial navigation, usually used for ballistic missiles.

[Image changes to show a computerised image of a miner standing at a control panel] 

It can be controlled from the top of the mine, or from the other side of the planet.

[Text appears on screen:  two thirds] 

Two-thirds of longwall coal mines in Australia now use this technology.  It’s not only led to a far safer working environment, efficiency has increased by up to 10%.

[Text appears on screen:  far safer; more efficient up to 10%] 

And now it’s been commercialised for global companies.

[Image changes to show a computerised image of a globe] 

So we can continue digging stuff up, and do it a lot safer.

[CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here]

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The demand for Australia's natural resources continues to grow. Coal mining comprises approximately 24 per cent of employment and 27 per cent of total revenue for the mining industry. While it is an important industry for Australia's gross domestic product, it can also be a hazardous workplace. The mining industry continues to improve conditions for mine workers, striving for zero harm, however innovation in processes and technologies are still needed.

A graphical representation of longwall automation technology.

Longwall mining accounts for around 90 per cent of Australia's underground coal production. Traditionally a mechanical shearer cuts along the coal seam beneath a roof supported by hydraulic jacks, exposing miners to multiple risks on a daily basis. Increasing health, safety and productivity around the longwall mining process has been a long term industry goal.

Despite significant progress many challenges remain, including the development of sensors and automation technologies to replace miners operating in hazardous conditions below ground.

Our response

Safer more productive systems

CSIRO in partnership with the coal industry developed an underground automation system that isolates people from mining hazards while improving productivity.

The system uses specialised remote guidance technology to continuously steer the longwall equipment by plotting its position in three dimensions, removing personnel directly from hazards and thereby increasing the safety of the process.

Previous systems required that mining operations be stopped to correct the positioning. The real-time progress of the longwall can also be monitored via the internet from anywhere in the world, leading to further gains in efficiency.

The results

Improved safety and efficiency

This new automated process has provided positive economic and social impacts for the coal mining industry and its employees, including:

  • improved safety conditions for longwall mining equipment operators
  • uptake into more than half of Australia's underground longwall coal operations
  • increased productivity that is delivering an economic benefit upwards of up to 10 per cent
  • commercialisation and licences for the automation technology for five global companies.

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