Industry Q&A: Smart Innovation in Underground Coal Mining

In an industry that requires constant innovation and development, Australia has long been at the forefront of driving safety, productivity and performance standards in underground coal mining. This pursuit of operational excellence is more important now than ever, with mining organisations facing an increasingly complex mining environment.

Austmine caught up with Mac Powolny, General Manager, Nautitech Mining Systems to explore the current challenges in the underground coal industry and the key technologies that can be applied to reduce risk and optimise performance.

You can hear more from Mac at Austmine’s upcoming Malabar Resources Smart Mining Networking Event in Newcastle.

With the upcoming Austmine event focusing on Smart Mining, how do Nautitech apply this principle in your business and for your customers?

Nautitech® is an award-winning global OTM (Original Technology Manufacturer) that designs and manufactures smart electronic solutions for OEMs and mining companies that are primarily in underground coal.

For over 20 years, our primary focus has been on design and manufacture of equipment that delivers Communications and Visibility, supports Automation, and provides a platform for Asset and Condition Monitoring of underground equipment. 
Part of our business model is to spend 15% of our turnover on R&D. Therefore, for future innovation and product development it’s critical for us to consult with the mining community.

Networking opportunities such as the Austmine Smart Mining events and other specialised conferences give us a platform to gain a deeper knowledge of the industry and test our ideas with decision makers, so we can continually innovate and improve what we deliver to our customers. 

The underground coal industry requires constant innovation to ensure safety and compliance. Where have you seen the focus in recent years for technology in underground coal?

By its nature, underground coal mining is one of the most challenging environments for both human and machine assets.

On the human side we have seen more and more focus directed towards automation and remote operations to remove workers from hazardous jobs. Where workers can’t be removed from a potentially hazardous location, technology can be used to create soft barriers for NO-GO zones, to track and communicate with personnel or assist with emergency evacuation and repairs.

On the machine front, in an environment where mining costs and prices are affected by global issues, it’s critical to ensure that machine assets are at their optimum performance to maximise output and minimise running costs. The use of sensor data from underground machines has the potential for significant operational savings by increasing productivity and providing insight into critical vehicle components for asset condition monitoring.

A major focus for Nautitech is enabling visibility and connectivity in the underground environment. What are the key challenges faced by clients in this space and how do Nautitech help?

Automation is one of the biggest challenges in underground mining, and safe, uninterrupted remote operations can only be achieved with a combination of reliable networks and clear visibility. Over the past 20 years, Nautitech® has worked with mines and OEMs worldwide to develop products that work together to deliver integrated systems for automation. 

  • Our Spitfire® BPLM creates a dependable network between the DCB and underground equipment, then transmits the vast amounts of machine data it collects to the surface – an invaluable resource for improving mining operations.
  • Nautitech® cameras fitted on continuous miners or longwall shearers and integrated with a Spitfire® BPLM can make real-time video available to the control room.
  • But safe automation cannot be achieved without optimum lighting to support HD cameras and our recent focus has been on CUBEx Intrinsically Safe lights – the first IS floodlight which has been successfully used to support remote shearer operation.

Nautitech® engineers and designs products with compatibility and system integration in mind. As such these automation solutions can be adapted to longwall systems, shuttle cars, feeder breakers, and other mining machinery.

Despite significant advancements in technology and greater automation, methane remains a major issue for underground coal mining. How widespread is this challenge and how can it be managed?

Methane hazards must be taken into consideration in all product development for underground coal mining. For Nautitech® and the mining industry in general, this means focusing on Intrinsically Safe technology. Developing IS and flameproof products requires long lead times due to additional certification and compliance requirements.

You have to be able to measure in order to manage conditions where methane may be present, and we have to assume that every underground mine is methane rich. While the industry has successfully established good methane monitoring on all mobile equipment and RTVs, there are opportunities to improve on CH4 detection in longwall mines in order to mitigate the risk from goaf.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have seen great success in underground mining with automation of complex production assets such as longwall, but there is more that can be done to automate auxiliary processes.

For Nautitech®, this means that we will be focusing on securing connectivity on RTVs as a first step towards automation in this area.