By Courtney Pearson

Working on exciting new technology to pave the way for a future of automation in mining is all in a day’s work for CSRIO principal research engineer Dr Mark Dunn.

Q. When did your journey with the CSIRO begin?

I started with CSIRO in early 2008 with no domain knowledge of mining technologies or processes. My background was in technology and automation in agriculture, and that translated well into the mining industry and the types of projects that we undertake.

I have a strong background in machine vision and software and hardware systems that can be used in very practical applications. I have been fortunate to be involved with a very strong team in the coal mining group that focuses on real world projects that deliver tangible impact to the industry.

Q. What is your role within the CSIRO?

I am a principal research engineer, which covers a diverse set of roles from project management to hands-on technical development.

I enjoy the variety of aspects of the job. I am currently working on a wide set of projects, mainly in coal mining – specifically underground longwall coal mining. I have been involved with some of the developments that are having a wide-ranging effect on the Australian industry, such as the LASC longwall automation system that is increasing the efficiency of the mining process by keeping the longwall straight and on track.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about the work that you do?

As a mechatronics engineer, I have expertise in system integration and data fusion. As an example, I am quite often developing prototype systems that can acquire data from sensors, and use that information to measure or evaluate some characteristics of the mining process. This can then be fed back into the control algorithms and systems to increase the efficiency, safety or sustainability of the process.

One of the technologies that our team has developed quite successfully across a number of years for underground coal mining applications is inertial navigation for position measurement. Measuring the position of equipment is the first step in being able to automatically control it. Commonly, in above-ground applications, GPS is the first option but this is not available in underground mines so our high quality inertial navigation system is the only viable solution.

Q. Is the technology that you helped to create used in real-world projects?

Inertial navigation has been the fundamental basis of our work in longwall automation. We have been working on longwall automation for two decades now and it has been highly successful, resulting in the commercial LASC longwall automation technology now used in two-thirds of Australian longwall mines with increasing usage internationally.

I have also been heavily involved in proximity detection system development. Despite the increase in automation,  remote control and teleoperation, accidents still occur and there is a growing need for effective systems to reliably measure the proximity of items of equipment to each other and to people in the vicinity.

Q. How is automation changing the mining industry?

The emerging capabilities of automation are fundamentally changing the mining industry by the redefinition of the role of workers. The basic logistical chain of cut-transport-process-transport will remain substantially the same, but the physical interaction required from a person will be reduced, and this means mining will be safer.

Automation also brings many advantages from consistency and repeatability mainly by allowing equipment to work consistently closer to its capacity, giving a better return on investment to mining operators.

Q. When did automation become an option for the mining industry?

Automation in underground coal mining has been on the agenda since the 1970s but it has only been in the last 10 or so years that technical capability such as new sensors, powerful miniature embedded computing systems and broadband industrial-grade networking leading to distributed systems has enabled real progress.

When I started with CSIRO, automation in mining was still not widely accepted, but this view has changed rapidly to the point where it is now commonplace. It is also generally acknowledged that it will be a requirement for the successful future of the industry.

Q. What is your next big project?

We are currently working on a couple of exciting technologies involving geological sensing and automation of underground mining machines based on our existing sensor and control system research.

We’ve basically done the easy part – measuring the position of equipment. Before we can completely remove people from the hazards of the face, we need to build the sensors that tell us what’s going on at the face the way that we rely on people to do at the moment; that’s what we’re working on now.

Q. Where do you see the future of mining headed in terms of technology?

I think it will be a progressive move to more automation and remote control of all the operations of both surface and underground mining where human operators will transition to a supervisory role in a safe location, with more focus on handling the exceptions rather than the repetitive day-to-day tasks.

The increasing availability of advanced consumer products will be the backbone of remote sensing, control and visualisation that will be required to progress towards ‘full’ automation.

Finally, there is a generational change of mine operators who are bringing a new understanding of the abilities of technology, and an expectation that the technology widely available in the public sphere will also be used in mining-operational scenarios. This will be a major driver for the introduction of new technologies.