The Syama mine in Mali was originally developed by BHP as an open cast gold mine in the 1980s, but since being taken over by Resolute Mining in 2015, it has undergone some extraordinary changes as it prepares to become the first purpose-built automated mine in the world.
“Most automation journeys start with existing underground operations and then retrofit automation into them, whereas we’ve designed the mine, we’re the first mine to put all the different pieces together,” says Resolute managing director John Welborn.
“That means that right from the bolting or the clearing of the drill point, to the extraction of the ore and the loading of the ore into the haul trucks to the operational haul trucks, all of those activities will be performed by automated machinery.”
The trucks, robotic loaders and drills have all been designed in partnership with Swedish engineering company Sandvik, which has a strong history of providing automation.
“Sandvik has been implementing digital mining solutions for more than two decades,” says Riku Pulli, vice president of business unit automation, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology. “Sandvik’s AutoMine and OptiMine product families are working in more than 60 mines around the world, logging millions of hours and zero Loss Time Injuries.”
The first fully automated mine
The Syama mine, located 300km southeast of Mali’s capital Bamako, has total reserves of 2.9 million ounces of gold. Work on the deep drilling programme at the mine began in late 2015, ensuring the new, low levels of the mine are designed with automation in mind.
“We’re building a sublevel cave, which is a bulk mining method underground,” explains Welborn. “The Syama ore body is a three and a half gram ore body, it’s a kilometre long and it’s 200m thick. So it is an underground gold mine that’s not exceptionally high grade, but it is very large and is an ore body that lends itself to this particular style of bulk mining.
“It’s a mining method that has a lot of repetitive activity. You open up a number of drill points, with loaders and bolters that move up and down, and haulage trucks. So the potential to automate drives huge productivity and efficiency gaps.”
Throughout the mine there will be a fibre-optic network, ensuring that the autonomous haulage trucks and other elements are in constant contact with the control centres above ground. The difficulty of signal strength, and therefore concerns with connectivity, are often cited in autonomous projects located in such difficult environments.
“A fibre-optic network is essential as it provides a back bone for data exchange between underground equipment, the control room on the surface and other remote locations,” says Pulli.
“A lot of data is transmitted and received by the equipment and by other AutoMine and OptiMine system components, therefore the digital communication network is an important part of the system. This also allows the pieces of equipment to continuously report their locations, a critical component optimising traffic and maintenance schedules.”
Increasing efficiency and lowering costs
The advantages of automating a mine are clear, as the technology increases efficiency and improves safety. The cost profile of the mine has been reduced by as much as 15% thanks to the implementation of automation. This reduces the cost of production from $881 per ounce down to $746 per ounce.
Despite the upfront additional cost of the autonomous equipment being as much as $10m-$15m, Resolute will ultimately cut mining costs by 30%.
Efficiency is also improved with automation. “With fully automated equipment, no time is lost during handovers at the end of a shift,” says Pulli. “It is also not necessary to protect mobile robots from explosive gases, nor to suspend operations to allow for ventilation. We have examples where machines are now working 22 hours a day, rather than the 15 or 16 hours they worked before. This is a pretty amazing improvement.”
Many of the challenges that work against automation, such as connectivity concerns, are centred on the retrofitting of mines. The Syama mine avoids these problems, thanks to its purpose-built nature.
A concern that remains, however, is that as automation improves, fewer employees are needed. This is particularly prevalent in regions that rely on mining as a key provider of jobs. The Syama mine is the largest employer in the area, providing 1,500 jobs, as well as playing an important role in the broader economy of Mali – particularly as the government holds a 20% stake in the operations.
Resolute and Sandvik are both adamant that automation will not reduce employment. Instead, “automation allows for new types of technology roles in mines,” says Pulli.
This may initially mean that there is a skills gap, but Welborn simply views this as an opportunity. “There’s an important requirement in this sort of mining activity to be good at training,” he says. “All miners are going through a technology journey. The opportunity in Mali, in a developing country, is huge.
“Technology and adaptive technology provides a great opportunity to train local workers to use equipment in a way we haven’t been able to do in the past. So whereas traditionally mines in Africa have employed a lot of expatriate managerial labour, or the highly skilled technical jobs have been performed by expatriates, I think the use of innovative and adaptive technologies allows us to be more proactive with training local workers to use and up-skill into those roles, and that’s what we intend to do in Syama.”
An automated, and more sustainable, mining environment
Automation is set to become increasingly common around the world, as mines from Australia to Scandinavia adopt autonomous haulage trucks and smart control systems.
“I think we’re seeing it happen, I think underground mining is going automated and it’s going electric,” says Welborn. “It’s very pleasing, and there are a number of important ways that that will change mining.
“It will make existing mines more efficient and lower cost, as well as a lot safer, but it will also allow us to mine new ore bodies that were previously unattainable or inaccessible, so traditionally the gold price has driven the accessibility of ore bodies whereas now it’s going to be increasingly technology that allows us to mine ore bodies economically and safely.”
Beyond autonomy, the global shift in focus to sustainability is being felt in mining. Efforts to reduce emissions at mine sites and improve worker safety have led increasingly to the electrification of vehicles wherever possible.
“We’ve gone with an electric headed loader, that’s actually like a vacuum cleaner in that it’s attached to a power source by a cable,” says Welborn. “I think we’re going to see more and more battery-based electric vehicles. There are the associated advantages, particularly underground, of not creating diesel particulates, exhaust gases, and the benefit of greater taught and greater efficiency of that machinery. This is something that I think we’re going to start to see quite rapidly impact underground mining.”
The first ore from the Syama mine is expected by the end of the year, and thanks to the automation and redevelopment of the mine, its life is expected to continue beyond 2032. Its success will undoubtedly encourage further automation across the world, as the benefits become ever more pronounced.
Further developments are still expected from Syama, as Resolute continues to seek improvements in its sustainability.
“Part of our ongoing efforts to make Syama a lower-cost, sustainable operation is looking at other opportunities for power generation like solar and battery,” says Welborn. “We’re looking forward to making an announcement before the end of the 2018 calendar year about our intentions.”