Perilya embraces changing technology

Tuesday, 21st February, 2012

ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY: Perilya projects superintendent Dean Johnstone with one of the control sets used for remote mining. ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY: Perilya projects superintendent Dean Johnstone with one of the control sets used for remote mining.

By Paula Doran

They may be plumbing the historic depths in one of Australia’s most historic mine leases, but Perilya’s miners are riding a wave of technological advances which would make their forefathers gasp.

The picture of the miner with pick and shovel, laboring at the face of an ore body must now be relegated to folklore and history, because in the caverns deep underneath Broken Hill there’s a whole new world opening up.

Picture a massive loader worth a few million dollars deep in the dark belly of the earth, then add to that picture a miner with almost video-game like controls and two television screens - now put that miner in a clean, air conditioned office above ground and you have the miner of the not-too-distant future.

That’s right - the massive machine underground will be controlled from the safety of an office.

In fact when it comes to rock crushing, this scenario is already the case.   Today’s rock crushing operator can be found running his machine via CCTV in a comfortable leather chair underneath the main office at Perilya’s Southern Operations.

Whoever thought mining could be an office job?

But thanks to rapidly developing new technology, it’s certainly moving that way.

And it’s being embraced by all sectors.

Rio Tinto, for example, has been operating a $60 million remote controlled mine of the future for 18 months. The nation’s largest iron ore producer co-ordinates all its mining, rail and port operations (some of which is 1500 kilometres away) from a central location in Perth, using video and radio to track employees and machinery.

In Broken Hill our major miners are doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

On the initial view it’s boys and their toys on a large scale - and the machinery now carries camera and laser fittings, not drivers.

Dean Johnstone and Paul Dally are the men charged with leading Perilya’s development of technological projects; to them the rapid improvements made underground are more than just using technology at its most efficient. “It’s vital to our continued mine safety,” they agree.

“What this allows us to do is put our machinery into areas that are potentially too dangerous to put our men near. The remote technology means our workers are safe,” Dean says.

Later, underground, Dean will lead me through a tunnel on the 18th level of the mine to show a remote controlled loader that is pulling dirt from a 20 metre high stope, while driver Rob Lee sits a few hundred metres away in the safety of a specially built-control booth in the back of a troupie.

While it is well known that Perilya is remnant mining, for those outside the industry that term means very little.

“A mate of mine recently explained it like this,” says Dean. “It’s as if we’ve had all the best cuts of a roast and now we’re going back to try and get the small bits of meat between the bones.”

And what that means is that the miners going in to get the cuts between the bones are going over old, and potentially dangerous territory to bring out the lucrative ore.

Remote evolution

Like the fine tuning of mobile phones from the original brick phones to today’s zippy apps and virtual hand held computers, the technology used in remote mining has come a long way since it first appeared in the late 1980s.  

Then, the remote mining pioneers would stand with a large, hefty set of controls connected to a 12 volt battery resting on a 44 gallon drum, pointed towards a machine.

It was all line of sight operations and was often dangerous, sometimes fatal.

Just over 20 years later and the remote technology has developed to the point that the remote loader driver now sits in the cab of a troupe carrier a few hundred metres from the machine in a specially fitted out space with every technology necessary to drive that machine, and create a comfortable work environment.

Laser technology, importantly is used to make sure that once a breach in the working area is made, the loader stops, and on top of the loader a camera similar to those used in CCTV footage becomes the eyes, transmitting the picture of what’s going on back to the miner.

It’s a one-man job and can get tiring on the night shift, according to remote loader operator Robbie Lee. As I watch it’s hard not to think that the vision of the loader on the television screens in front of me are not some ultra-authentic computer game.

Soon, Rob and his contemporaries will be on the surface doing the same job.

Handovers will be more simple, says Dean, and loader drivers won’t have to travel the winding roads underground; the loader will be already on the job and a hot seat change over with operators will happen swiftly in a surface remotes room.

Machine guidance

To Perilya’s Production Superintendent, Paul Dally, the man charged with moving the dirt underground, the safety improvements the remote technology provides are crucial.

He was part of the original remote loader operators and paints a wild picture of men having to get into the bucket of machines to guide them more precisely.

Today the remotes are fitted with a guidance system that allows them to work with incredible precision of movement with the mere push of a joy stick.

While the Nintendo playing vision of joysticks and computer programs might give an impression that it’s all fun and games, Paul says the remote loader operator positions are much sought after, and reserved for those with experience and proven skill.

“It takes great concentration to do this job properly, he says. “They’re guiding a machine that’s 13 metres long and three metres high through a small drive.  There’s not a lot of room for error.”

Above ground a new department has opened up at Perilya, with a specialist few charged with maintaining the remote control technology.

Nigel Philp, senior remote technician, says Perilya is the only company in Australia that is able to service its own equipment, rather than send everything back to the head office of the company who make it, Remote Control Technology (RCT).

Both he and fellow technician Zac Paech are charged with an amazing array of equipment, amongst them motherboards and nano-technology, the pick and shovel of the modern mining era.

Both say without hesitation: “This is the future,”