Report: APP CMHS Project 1

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3.1.13. Longwall Automation

Current Technologies

Significant advances have been made in the automation of longwall equipment such that it is possible to run the face almost entirely automatically. This typically comprises shearer initiation of armoured face conveyor (AFC) and roof support advance cycles; semi-automatic face cutting and horizon control (operator performs ‘teach’ cut then shearer replicates); automatic belt retraction via remote belt loop take up; and automated services retraction with monorail mounted electric cables, water and hydraulic hoses.

Automation of mining equipment is the cornerstone for the future of longwall mining, as agreed by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and mine operators alike. Automation will allow for the removal of personnel from the face (during mining operations) potentially allowing for designs and thresholds for safe operation to be raised and new standards introduced, such as:

  • Faster haulage speeds

  • Higher pressures being used to operate hydraulic systems

  • Larger hydraulic hoses

  • Higher voltages

  • More intensive dust control measures.

Additionally, face automation can provide a more stable cutting horizon, preventing situations where equipment can be damaged due to contact with ribs in cases of uncontrolled face creep or toppling of supports; or damage to the Armoured Face Conveyor (AFC) or supports by the shearer, due to loss of cutting horizon.

These two broad strategies, removal of people from the face area and improvement in operational conditions, are achieved by automation of the shearer cutting cycle, AFC and stage loader advance process and the support lower, advance and set cycle.

The shearer cutting cycle automation can be achieved in one of two ways: programming the shearer with the desired face profile for relatively static, consistent face and seam cutting conditions; or the more commonly used ‘teach and replay’ or ‘memory cut’ system – where an operator conducts the first cutting sequence of the shift, by recording the full cutting profile into the shearer computer and then simply replaying the recorded cycle for the selected number of shears. In order to deliver true automation of cutting into gateroads, there needs to be an improvement in gateroad gradients and orientation. While ever the gateroad exactly follows the seam, it is very difficult to implement full automation of such cutting into the gateroad. The need for driving gateroads to predetermined profiles is necessary.

Shearer initiated AFC and support advance is a reliable option for all currently supplied equipment. The consistent application of such technology is highly dependent on the will and commitment of the respective management and staff at the mine. The two main drawbacks to date are: the interaction with shearer at the gate ends; and failure to advance and/or set due to face inconsistencies from poor cutting horizon or equipment reliability. Both issues are in focus for improvement activities.

Recent achievements in longwall automation include:

  • Automatic measurement of shearer position in production

  • Automatic measurement of face creep distance

  • Testing prototype of automatic measurement of retreat progress

  • Testing of automatic horizon control in response to action changes in seam profile – using optical marker bands and thermal infrared detection of coal interfaces and markers

  • High speed broadband communications link to the shearer – allowing real-time monitoring and integration of geotechnical data

  • Preliminary 3D visualisation technology that will assist with totally remote operations

  • Shearer haulage control automation – particularly at gate ends

  • Time based support pressure analysis – to give 3D maps for operational feedback

  • Trials of hardware and software for detecting gateroad convergence.

The current state of automation of longwall faces means that single operator conventional (not LTCC) longwall faces are achievable. Such examples can be viewed at:

Mines that are most advanced in the implementation of automation are Beltana, Broadmeadow Mine, Wambo Mine and United Mine.

The next steps for future improvement in automation are:

  • The ability to program alignment and face profiles for roof support condition – e.g. convex face profile to improve mid-face support in areas of high convergence.

  • Production trials and operational capability testing of automated horizon control, including cameras. There is a significant amount of development required before this objective is achieved.

  • Implementation of visualisation technology for remote operation.

  • Continued development of wireless convergence and tilt monitoring systems.

  • Development of collision avoidance systems – to negate the potential for shearer collision with roof supports or other components; for successful truly remote operation.

  • Operational trials of gateroad convergence monitoring.

  • Gateroad drivage on near constant profile and orientation.

The main challenge is in adapting to changing seam conditions. Some intervention and physical monitoring is still required.

Application Sites

This longwall automation technology has been successfully applied at Xstrata’s Beltane mine in New South Wales and BHP Billiton’s Broadmeadow mine in Queensland

Technology Gaps/Needs

  • The ability for automated longwall equipment to negotiate deviations in seams with minimal or no human intervention.

  • Automation of mine development, to integrate coal cutting, roof bolting and haulage.

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