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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Australian gold miner takes automation to the next level

Resolute's Mali mine's machines that drill and haul rubble to the surface will be controlled by operators in Perth, about 14,000km away

Resolute Gold engineers at Syama Gold Mine, Mali. Courtesy Resolute Gold
Resolute Gold engineers at Syama Gold Mine, Mali. Courtesy Resolute Gold

Australian mining company Resolute is about to go live with a gold operation in Mali, West Africa, that will be a world first; its fleet of machines will be operated entirely by technicians half a world away.

Resolute Mining, based in Perth, is currently putting the finishing touches on it Syama gold project 300 kilometres south of the capital Bamako, and will deliver its first gold in December.

Mali is already Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, and a favourite among explorers looking for new deposits. Syama however will be unique in that the machines that drill blast holes and scoop up the rubble and haul it to the surface will be controlled not by drivers, but by operators in Perth, about 14,000 kilometres away.

“We started looking at automation and the level of productivity it would produce,” says Peter Beilby, the chief operating officer of Resolute. “The numbers made financial sense.”

Automation has been around for a while in mining to some degree. Rio Tinto has a fleet of trucks weighing a monstrous 415 tonnes each, which ferry ore in western Australia, 24-hours a day. This year its robot trucks delivered its 1 billionth tonne of iron ore in Australia.

However, Syama mine is the first to fully automate the entire process, from drilling to extraction to clearing rubble away and transporting it to the surface. It will also be the first automated mine where operations are conducted across continents.

“Other [miners] are doing partial automation, but we are the first to put it all together and do everything,” Mr Beilby says.

A fibre-optic network is fitted throughout the mine, connected to a control centre on the surface. This will keep the vehicles and machines online and in touch with their Perth-based operators at all times.

A touchy issue that always comes up regarding automation is jobs. Mali ranks 175th out of 188 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index for 2016, and the average wage is just $1.25 a day. Resolute may save having to fly in expert technicians, but it could deprive Malians of desperately needed jobs.

However, Mr Beilby says the issue has been talked out with the government and Resolute has undertaken to ensure locals are trained in those skills needed on the ground, such as maintenance and servicing equipment.

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Ultimately, he notes, the automation route is not really about lowering the headcount but increasing productivity and reducing the number of men underground, one of the deadliest places on earth to work.

“The government has been quite supportive of us. We’ve undertaken to providing quality jobs and skills. We’ve made it clear that expatriates who are sent over will be there to train Malians, not just to work,” Mr Beilby says.

Automation is becoming familiar to the public in the form of self-driving transport, such as self-driving shuttle buses and the impending arrival of self-driving cars.

For heavy industry users, however, automation brings relief to a growing problem companies face – the reluctance of a younger generations to work in unglamorous, difficult and dirty trade jobs.

“The big issue we’re looking at is the lack of critical skills,” says Neal McCoy, key sccount manager in the Johannesburg office of Sandvik, the Swedish heavy engineering company. It is Sandvik that will be providing the equipment extracting ore at Syama.

“Automation is the tool to bridge the skills gap," says Mr McCoy. "An operator can sit with a cup of coffee in an air-conditioned office in front of a screen, instead of sweating in a hot cab underground, where he is at risk of injury or worse.”

These days, mines are often built in the last places people want to live – the far outback deserts of Australia, or the frozen arctic of Canada. Getting trained staff into and out of these areas is a costly affair and enticing skilled people to these areas requires premium salaries.

Away from Mali, mineral exports are likely to boost economies such as Zimbabwe, which expects to earn $12 billion a year from mineral exports by 2023, Mines Minister Winston Chitando said last week.

Mineral production is expected to be boosted by increased output at Anglo American Platinum’s Unki Mine and Impala Platinum’s Mimosa project, which have submitted expansion plans to the government, he said.

Diamond production is expected to reach 12 million carats a year by 2023, he said.

Zimbabwe earned $2.47 billion from exports of minerals in the first half of 2018, according to central bank data. Platinum shipments generated $566.9 million and industrial diamonds exports raised $40.1 million, the bank said last month, according to Bloomberg.

In addition, MrChitando said the government will announce next week the successful bidders for assets owned by state-owned mining company ZMDC, including gold mines, adding that more companies would be put on sale at the end of November.

Selling struggling state-owned companies, known locally as parastatals, is part of President Emmerson Mnangagwa's wider reforms to cut government expenditure.

Mines Minister Winston Chitando told a parliamentary committee that after announcing winning bidders for its six mines, the Zimbabwe Mining and Development Corporation (ZMDC) would put on sale its remaining 20 assets by the end of this month.

ZMDC will either sell outright, or seek joint ventures, for the mines, most of which are either operating below capacity or under care and maintenance, Chitando said.

London-listed Caledonia Mining Corp, which already operates Blanket mine in southern Zimbabwe, is among the bidders for the two gold mines.

"As government, we would like to see each and every asset owned by ZMDC getting into production," Chitando said.

Gold is Zimbabwe's single largest mineral export. Bullion output reached a record 994,726 ounces between January and October this year, compared with 952,397 ounces for the whole of 2017, Chitando said.

Countries such as Mali face another impediment to attracting skilled technicians and operators; ongoing conflict and extremist activity. The UN says its peacekeeping mission there, following a failed coup six years ago, is currently its most dangerous. On October 27, two peacekeepers based in Ber, close to Timbuktu, were killed when the blue helmets repelled a complex attack, launched simultaneously by several pickups armed with rocket launchers and machine guns, as dawn broke.

Autonomous machines mean that companies can reduce their staff demands in troubled countries. Along with reducing the number exposed to the inherent dangers of mining, this is a win for all. Skilled personnel will still be needed on site but at least they will be working on the surface, rather than toiling in the depths.

“At the end of the day you still need a pair of hands to repair and maintain equipment,” Mr McCoy points out.

“Remote control helps the operator, but the artisan still has to get out there and be on the ground when needed.”