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Robots on the rise at Kumba

Feb 19 2017 07:23
Justin Brown

Eye in the sky: Drones are used for aerial surveys at two of Kumba’s mines.

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Last traded 417
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Last Updated: 01/01/0001 at 12:00. Prices are delayed by 15 minutes. Source: McGregor BFA

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Johannesburg - Kumba Iron Ore has spent about R500 million on technology improvements, including remote-controlled robotic machines that drill blast holes and drones for aerial surveys, at its two key mines in the Northern Cape since 2014.

Themba Mkhwanazi, the CEO of Kumba [JSE:KIO], said during an interview this week that the autonomous drills would lead to lower costs.

“This technology also improves safety by allowing limited exposure for operators as they no longer need to physically sit inside the drill – now they will be in a safer and air-conditioned environment, where they will be able to operate the drills remotely.”

Mkhwanazi said that, in South Africa, introducing autonomous drilling was a challenge as it was seen as a move that would result in the potential loss of jobs.

“We found, though, that our autonomous drilling programme hasn’t resulted in a loss of jobs – it has enhanced the life of our operators by improving their safety and health,” he said.

Glen McGavigan, Kumba’s executive head of technical and projects, said there were six autonomous drills that made holes before blasting took place at Kumba’s Kolomela mine near Postmasburg.

The workers who used to operate the drill now sit in a control centre at the mine and operate the drills remotely.

Bongi Ntsoelengoe, Kumba’s manager of technology, said during an interview that at the Sishen mine near Kathu, two out of 20 drills had been converted to autonomous drills during the second half of last year.

A decision about converting the rest of the drills at Sishen would be made in the first half of this year.

It was most likely that a further seven to eight drills would be converted, Ntsoelengoe said.

Kumba was the only company in South Africa that was operating autonomous drills in opencast mines, McGavigan said.

The only other iron ore mine in the world that he was aware of that used autonomous drills was BHP Billiton’s Yandi mine in Western Australia.

Ntsoelengoe said that the cost to convert each drill to autonomous mode varied from R9 million to R11 million, so this would put the cost of converting the eight drills at between R72 million and R88 million.

Ntsoelengoe said that the total cost of doing the autonomous drilling to date was R220 million at Kolomela and R30 million at Sishen including network upgrades as well as the construction of control rooms.

McGavigan said the autonomous drills had increased the number of hours of drilling in a day by more than 20%.

In the past, using humans to operate the drills, 14 hours of drilling could be achieved a day, but with the autonomous drills, operating time increased to 17 to 18 hours a day.

Part of the reason the autonomous drills could continue for so long was that the person operating the drill rig only needed to sit in the control centre, rather than having to be dropped off and picked up at the drill rig, McGavigan said.

Ntsoelengoe said that, as a result of the extra drilling time, two fewer drill rigs would be required over the lifespan of the Kolomela mine, and this would ultimately result in savings.

McGavigan said that Kumba was using drones to conduct aerial surveys at its mines.

These drones were helping to collect a new set of information and data.

Mkhwanazi said: “What it [using drones] does is that it allows us to have far greater coverage in terms of the surveying. It takes away having to expose an individual to walking on stockpiles.”

Kumba has a total of 10 drones, of which four are used at its Kolomela mine and six are used at its Sishen mine. The company has trained five of its staff to be pilots of these drones and they received licences from the SA Civil Aviation Authority to use the technology, McGavigan said.

The company has fixed-wing drones, which have cameras installed on them, and quadcopter drones, which have on-board cameras and a laser scanner, which is used to create three-dimensional images.

McGavigan said that the drones were being used to fly over the mines and help measure what rock had been mined out and where mining had taken place.

Drones could also be used to survey an accident scene as well as areas that could be unsafe for workers to enter, he added. He said that Kumba had spent R6 million on the 10 drones including attachments.

The company’s first drone flight was at Kolomela in December 2015.

Kumba initially leased drones before the company bought its first drones in November.

As a way to improve safety, autonomous braking for Kumba’s haul trucks is another innovation the company is looking at.

Ntsoelengoe said that the control centre could detect the movement of the trucks and, if there was the possibility of a collision or accident, the whole truck would automatically come to a stop.

Kumba had been developing the technology for four years and 10 trucks had been fitted with the barking system.

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