Current Research in Mine Equipment Automation in Australia
Over the past five years there has been a major shift in structure of the Australian mining industry and the way that mining research is conducted in this country. Mining has always been a global industry -– you go where the deposits are – and Australia has long been an important mining country. (Mining continues to play a key role in the Australian economy, accounting for about 5% of GDP and xx% of total exports.) The structural changes, through mergers and acquisitions, that have taken place in this industry are symptomatic of the globalisation trend that has affected many industries. In recent years Rio Tinto (a London-based company) acquired the remaining shares in CRA (a Melbourne-based company), BHP (a Melbourne-based company) merged with Billiton (a London-based company), Anglo bought Shell Coal (Anglo Coal is now headquartered in Brisbane), Newmont recently won a well-publicized battle with Anglogold to take over the Australian Normandy Mining Company.
The mining research landscape has also changed dramatically. CRA and BHP both used to maintain a number of large research laboratories in Australia. Both companies have greatly scaled back their in-house research. AMIRA was, for 30 years, an Australian research brokerage organisation. In recent years, to maintain its budget, while still operating from an Australian base it has increased the work that it does overseas and is now known as AMIRA International. University mining departments, in Australia and overseas, struggle to survive in the modern environment where university funding is increasingly tight and small departments with high staff-student ratios, like mining, have difficulty breaking even. Australia is better-off in this regard than most other western countries because the prominence of, and the high starting salaries offered by, the domestic mining industry still attracts high quality students to mining programs. Mining and minerals research conducted at Australian universi-ties generally is of very high quality but is more commonly focused in areas such as exploration or processing than mining. The mining-specific university research tends to be concentrated in geome-chanics. The large government research organisation CSIRO , whilst for many years it had a world-class Division of Geomechanics, surprisingly, did not have a more general mining research program. This changed in 1995 when CSIRO created a new Division of Exploration and Mining. The biggest single change to the Australian research landscape over the past decade has been the introduction of a new Commonwealth Government initiative, called the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Program. This Program creates joint ventures between the users of research (industry or public good agencies) and researcher workers (in universities or government research laboratories). These joint ventures are typically dominated by the users and they aim to benefit the country by developing technologies that the users want and will adopt. Currently there are some 65 CRCs servicing a wide range of industries. About 5 of these Centres service the mining industry; four in the areas of exploration or processing and one, CMTE, in mining.
This paper reviews Australian mining research that has been conducted in this changing environment. The paper describes ongoing Australian mining research activities and the technology development needs of this industry. There is a strong focus in the paper on mining equipment automation issues and specific examples of recently completed automation projects are given.