Could technology help in the quest for mine safety? The CSIR believes so

Mine workers employed at Sibanye Gold's Masimthembe shaft operate a drill in Westonaria on April 3, 2017. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters
Mine workers employed at Sibanye Gold's Masimthembe shaft operate a drill in Westonaria on April 3, 2017. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has developed new technology to address the safety issues in South Africa’s mines.

The CSIR is researching new technology under the South African Mining Extraction Research Development and Innovation programme, which focuses on extending the life of mines and existing operations and is also trying to access resources that were not previously acceptable.

This includes advanced orebody knowledge that looks at technology to identify risks in working areas and as see beyond the face.

“There are certain geological anomalies that may occur and if we can be notified before we encounter them we can take necessary precautions, with respect, to support the number of personnel in the working area et cetera,” said Dr Shaniel Davrajh, principal engineer at the CSIR.

This uses the technology of ground penetrating radar to identify what is behind a rock in mines and what is above the hanging wall can also be identified.

“Currently these systems are available commercially but they haven’t been employed to function within the mining environment as yet, so that’s where our contribution lies,” said Davrajh.

Another piece of technology at the CSIR includes a thermal hanging wall inspection in a form of a robot that can assist in the early entry examination process within the mining cycle.

“What happens currently is that you require experienced personnel to identify where loose rock is. This robot then generates a risk map for the workforce before they even enter the area and the way in which it does this is it uses thermal imaging to identify which rocks are loose, because the loose rock will cool at a different rate to the hanging walls,” he said.

The CSIR noted that the majority of fatalities in mines were a result of “fall of ground”.

“I do believe, however, that this technology does have the potential to impact what’s currently happening in certain situations where the majority of fatalities are due to fall of ground, and if we had this technology within these systems there could have been a difference,” said Davrajh.

Together with the Mandela Mining Precinct, the CSIR is moving towards a second phase in the programme that involves engaging mining companies to implement the technology.

“Technology is often seen as replacement for human resources – often the workforce sees technology as a replacement for them and they don’t buy into it. That’s among some of the major challenges that we’ve had, maybe it’s not fully understood that the technology is there to supplement the work force and not just to replace the workforce completely,” said Davrajh.

He added that there is a large “people component” to this entire project and believes previous projects failed because it didn’t take to account human factors.

“That’s something that we’re driving very aggressively within the precinct,” he said.

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