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Mine could go on auto

Apr, 16 2012

(Australia)  --  GETTING rid of the miners could be the key to keeping the limping Norwich Park Mine operating in Central Queensland.

The BMA-owned mine is due to be mothballed in mid-May, costing 1400 jobs in the region although many of those will be taken up elsewhere.

Before the closure was announced, APN learned the mining Goliath was preparing to roll out automated machinery within the next six months.

The developers of the technology, Swedish manufacturers Sandvik, believe mining companies would eventually have miner-free projects.

This is something dismissed by BHP Billiton, which manages the seven BMA projects in the Bowen Basin.

Unmanned loaders and dump trucks could be controlled from a remote command room, removing the underground mine worker from the equation.

Each dump truck runs automatically in and out of the mine non-stop, while the controller simply tells the loader - something like a bulldozer - when to load them with coal.

It could increase flagging production at the site, increase safety because fewer miners would be in harm's way, and machine maintenance could be eased because they were driven predictably.

A lesser reliance on workers would also be desirable to unions continuing more than 16 months of industrial action.

This technology is being developed by Swedish manufacturers Sandvik, and Norwich Park could still be one of their testing grounds.

Before word of its closure, Sandvik regional automation manager Pieter Prinsloocorr said Norwich Park could be its first testing ground in Queensland.

"The system is programmed so it does the traffic control, avoiding collisions underground," he said.

"Once you start doing the first stage of automation, you expect to eventually move to other parts of the mine.

"You're talking about the totally automated mines, that's what Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are moving towards."

It is understood the deal between Sandvik and BHP Billiton for this machinery has not changed since its proposed closure.

A BHP Billiton spokesman said it would always pursue proven technology but so far had no plans to fully automate projects.

He said the review into Norwich Park's viability found it would need "significant changes to the mining sequence, mining processes, workforce structure and organisational arrangements" to be profitable.

By: Owen Jacques

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