New automation and analytics features will assist tomorrow’s operators

By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief

Like most businesses today, underground coal operators are dealing with new challenges during this post-pandemic period. One of the major challenges facing almost all aspects of mining is finding, training, and retaining workers. Statistics published by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME), indicate that more than half the current mining workforce will retire and need to be replaced, creating an enormous skills and knowledge gap. This problem could become a lasting problem for coal operators if it isn’t already.

Speaking at the U.S. Coal Show, which took place during May in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, Toby Cressman, product manager for automation and data solutions for Komatsu Mining, discussed the variety of solutions the company is currently developing for room-and-pillar mining. These solutions could improve the performance of today’s operators and assist with training future miners and help hold down costs for mining companies.

Suggestions for improving productivity with room-and-pillar mining have always been somewhat subjective. Oftentimes, it’s obvious that there is room for improvement with some aspect, such as haulage routes and travel times, as well as operator behavior, but there are also a lot of moving parts that can create unexpected downtime.

Komatsu has focused its attention on the continuous miner (CM) and it has made considerable progress. The use of the Flexible Conveyor Train (FCT) in conjunction with a CM in an autonomous state is becoming a reality. The company is now extending the sphere of influence to include batch haulage, such as shuttle cars and battery haulers.

Some of the benefits are clear. Operators are removed from the face. Automated systems run con-
sistently, cutting smooth ribs and floors, and they can help with maintenance by predicting and troubleshooting problems. Integration, however, can be difficult without a structured implementation plan. Data analytics can show the results and be used as an aid for training and operator development.

Degrees of Automation

One of the key points with an automation strategy is technology integrators, Cressman explained. “There is a lot happening today and technology is moving faster and faster,” Cressman said. “We are working with third parties on proximity detection, operations centers, control systems standardization, and at the same time, we are rolling out the FaceBoss control system across all products.”

Komatsu performs technology trials at potash or salt mines where they are unconstrained by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulations related to coal. “We can try a lot of new sensors and new technologies,” Cressman said. “Once we decide to move forward with a coal application, we can enter them into the MSHA approval process.”

Ultimately, it all comes back to smart mining, Cressman explained, and data analytics can be used to assist the implementation phase and effect smarter mining. “The object of the automation strategy is to shorten the learning curve for operators, enable improved operator location, and be flexible enough to suit different operators,” Cressman said.

Coal operators will likely need to train an entirely new workforce in the next six years or so. Ideally, the mines would like to improve the operator’s location. Today, remote operations with the CM take place as line of sight, but tomorrow they will operate around the corner and eventually from the surface in remote operations centers. “Automation is a journey,” Cressman said. “We offer our products in a suite of comfort levels because we know not every mine is ready to dive right into a fully automated suite of equipment.

Komatsu’s Continuous Miner Automation (CMA) suite has different levels. Level 0 is the basic manual operation. Level 1 is the One-touch Shear (OTS), which has been around for decades. The operator sets the roof and floor points, and the software controls the machine. Level 3 incorporates heading control. 

“Most of today’s conversation revolves around Level 2, which is our Sequenced Table-based Automation,” Cressman said. “It allows the operator to safely focus on the task at hand, which results in more consistent sump and shear cycles. One of the benefits is a smooth floor. Uneven floors create rough haulage conditions for the shuttle cars and the floor must be cleaned up before the section can move forward.”

Komatsu performed trial runs of the sequence table with an FCT and shuttle cars at a salt mine in Canada. Using the sequence table, the operator can set every CM function, except the pump motors. The operator starts the machine manually, puts the machine in place, initiates the automation sequence, and the machine will continue to sump, shear and cut its cycles to desired heights and floor patterns as needed until the operator takes it out of the automated state.

“If the machine heading skews, the operator can override the traction motors and steer the machine without kicking it out of an automated state,” Cressman said.

One demonstration showed an FCT in following mode. Ultrawide band (UWB) sensors allow the FCT to follow the continuous miner as it sumps and shears. The UWB network allows communications between the CM and the FCT, and the FCT follows at the same speed forward and reverse.

“We offer several safety features for running in an automated state,” Cressman said. “For example, a green display on the back of the CM indicates it’s in an automated state. If there are miners nearby, they can see what is happening with the CM. With the FCT in follow mode, flashing lights will indicate when the FCT is about to tram forward. If the CM gets too close or falls too far behind, the light will turn red and the FCT will move forward. As the miner backs up, the lights turn red and the FCT begins to back up.

“The system tries to maintain the zone established by the FCT operator,” Cressman said. “It can run without assistance from operators, but there are operators in the area. These are what we call operator-assist type features.”

The operator uses what appears to be a longwall shearer remote, but it’s an FCT remote. It shows the stage of automation and what the CM is going to do as it backs up. “We refer to this Level 2 CMA as task level automation,” Cressman said. “There is an operator in the area, and he is holding a remote. The operator sets the machine into position, and then it can cut 50 ft, 75 ft, even 100 ft, as the mine plan allows without any input from the operator.”

Level 2 automation provides consistent cycles and productivity gains, Cressman explained, and it also reduces the wear and tear on the machines. “When the operators let the system control the sump and shear cycle, it’s better for the machine health-wise and it lowers the mine’s costs,” Cressman said. “We have this feature running in more than five countries in potash, coal and salt. We have seen the benefits of improved cycle times, produc-
tivity, machine life, and rib and floor conditions.”

Level 3 CMA involves heading control using light detection and ranging systems (Lidars). As the CM sumps and shears according to the sequence table that has been programmed into the machine, it will make heading corrections based on the previously cut wall. “The Lidars are scanning the walls behind the machine, striking a line and then correcting the heading as that machine sumps forward,” Cressman said.

Inconsistent seam height and geology impact automated operations. The Lidars control the heading, making corrections as needed. It needs access to a straight wall to get its bearing as it sumps and shears.

This is the next progression in the automation path, Cressman explained. “The cut sequence produces a very smooth rib, floor and roof,” Cressman said. “The FaceBoss display will indicate whether the Lidars are clean or dirty. Air knives clean the Lidars when the system indicates that the Lidars are dirty. Again, the operators are in the area, while the machine runs in an automated state.”

Batch Haulage Automation

Room-and-pillar mining sections have a lot of free space where batch haulage equipment moves. “While we are not there today, we are putting the coding in place to automate batch haulage equipment,” Cressman said. “This will require a lot of work and we know that batch haulage is not seen as the most expensive item. Will mines want to pay
for that technology?”

Komatsu is taking a phased approach for batch haulage like CMA with the CMs. “First we need to establish a good control system and to do that we are considering installing the FaceBoss system on shuttle cars and battery haulers,” Cressman said. “Then we will develop operator-assist systems.”

Cressman draws similarities to the automotive industry. “Passengers didn’t just jump into self-driving cars,” Cressman said. “There was an alert phase with lane departure warnings. Then it advanced to steering correction, where drivers receive an alert saying, ‘grab the wheel, we know you’re not paying attention.’ Then they eventually reached autonomous operations and we’re taking a similar approach with batch haulage equipment.”

At its lab in Warrendale, Pennsylvania, USA, Komatsu is testing autonomous batch haulage with battery haulers robots tramming through a simulated room-and-pillar section using cameras and Lidars. The robots navigate from the continuous miner to the feederbreaker. “These experiments demonstrate that, once we have the control systems in place on the equipment, we can implement this technology and move batch haulage forward,” Cressman said.

The ultimate goal, however, is operating a CM section from the surface. “We have been providing remote control equipment for years, but we are still mainly working off of line-of-sight systems,” Cressman said. “Now we need to determine the steps needed to move control around the corner, to the shaft bottom and eventually to the surface.” In the future, Cressman believes mining companies might be able to operate multiple sections at multiple mines from a surface control room.

Change Management

Cressman describes change management as the uncomfortable part of the automation discussion, and he emphasizes that the conversation must take place before an organization rolls out autonomous operations. He said understanding the concept of organizational context is key for the successful implementation of any new technologies at a mine.

Engineers should consider how implementing an automation strategy will impact operations, including areas such as:

Safety—What kind of site-specific controls or risk assessment are in place today that could be impacted by how miners interact with autonomous equipment?

Roles & Responsibilities—Equipment operators pride themselves on being the best. When putting their actions in the control system’s hands, management needs to keep them motivated, so they understand they are still critical to the operation.

Local & Regional Regulations—Komatsu and many mining companies operate in several countries and regions within those countries. How will regulators view these features?

Work Culture—How will organized labor react? What will be the new jobs? How will they accept new job titles?

Training & Support—Understanding how these features work will play a huge role in how well they are accepted. The mine needs to develop an onsite champion for the technology and a training program.

“This all rolls up into a technology acceptance model,” Cressman said. “The two key points that come out of this are perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use. How will we train our operators to accept this? How will we make this transition seamless whether they are operating in a manual or remote state so that the machine feels the same?

Acceptance and attitude are incredibly important. “If they do not have the right attitude, they will reject these new technologies,” Cressman said. “Operators can make a system successful and break it if they dislike it. We need to take the right steps to make the implementation successful.”

Data Analytics

Data analytics can be used to support this change. Figure 4 shows a lot of sump and shear cycles by asset. They are broken into CMA, OTS, mixed and manual. It shows how many sump and shear cycles were completed over a 3-month period. OTS had 18,000 cycles, and CMA had 9,000 to 10,000. Cycle times are available on the right side. The operators can view productivity for each state of operation. The mine can connect downtime with the amount of automation each section is using while in operation. 

“Komatsu is developing a whole suite of automation-type analytics for room-and-pillar operations,” Cressman said. “These tools can help implement and monitor the changes that occur using automation. We can plot every sump and shear cycle for a given mine. They can see the time of the sump and shear cycle, the length of the cycle, the top sump, the shear down, the bottom sump, the shear up, the percentage CMA vs. OTS vs. manual. These analytics can provide a key breakdown of what’s happening on the operations side and what affected productivity.”

Acknowledging that it is important to avoid the Big Brother persona, Cressman explained the data could be used for corrective training, which plays into the organizational context. “Stakeholders need to have an appreciation for organization context as they make changes to their operations,” Cressman said. “Analytics can be helpful in assisting in the implementation of new features and technology.” He believes demand for automation and technology will continue to grow to support a changing workforce.