Robotics – a slow adoption, and yet so many benefits!

2022-05-19T08:54:44+00:00 May 3rd, 2022|Cover story, Technology|

Sharyn Macnamara met with ABB and Dwyka Mining Services – both suppliers in the field of robotics to the mining industry in Africa – to get a handle on developments on the continent in this field, what their experience of the uptake has been and where robotics can take the industry going forward.

Robotics is a branch of engineering that involves the conception, design, manufacture and operation of robots, and although this field has grown substantially in the 20th century, it has been around for a lot longer than one would think, with the original coining of the term in the 1940s. 1 Robotics can take on a number of forms, with the end objective being that of assisting humans with intelligent machines. A robot may resemble a human, or it may take up a ‘Machine PLUS Human’ form, or indeed may be in the form of a robotic application, such as robotic process automation (RPA), which simulates how humans engage with software to perform repetitive, rules-based tasks, such as the back end office function of invoicing.

Spot® Enterprise and Docking Station for Remote Inspection. Image credit: Dwyka Mining Services

Spot® Enterprise and Docking Station for Remote Inspection. Image credit: Dwyka Mining Services

Where does robotics fit in?

Spot® Enterprise with CAM+IR Payload for Infrared Camera Imagery and 30x Optical Zoom. Image credit: Dwyka Mining Services

Spot® Enterprise with CAM+IR Payload for Infrared Camera Imagery and 30x Optical Zoom. Image credit: Dwyka Mining Services

When one considers the mining environment – which is often highly automated – where does robotics begin and where does it end?

ABB is a pioneer in robotics, machine automation and digital services, providing innovative solutions for a diverse range of industries, from automotive to electronics to logistics globally. When it comes to servicing Africa with robotics technologies, ABB South Africa is the hub for ABB business in the Sub-Saharan African countries.

Linda Eales, business area manager of Robotics for Sub-Saharan Africa at ABB says, “Robotics in mining really begins with the end user understanding the need for this technology in the underground or surface mining industry. There are two main objectives in mind when it comes to mining, the first being the safety of people, and secondly the enabling of a combination of cost and productivity efficiencies.”

In an already highly automated environment, where do robotics really fit in? “It is all about engineering a machine to do difficult and repetitive tasks – and in most cases dangerous mining tasks. This ranges from lifting and transporting heavy equipment to fine and precise work in mining laboratories. With ongoing R&D globally, the journey is really endless and could result in infinite possibilities, opportunities and solutions for the industry,” says Eales.

The company deals in both collaborative robots (cobots) and industrial robots, with the difference between the two being the weight that the robot can move and the speed at which it moves that weight. Cobots can handle lighter payload applications at lower speeds, working hand in hand with humans and balancing the imperative for safety with the need for flexibility and productivity. On the other hand, non-collaborative industrial robots, like those that change truck tyres, can move heavier weights and are therefore typically cordoned off with safety fencing so that humans cannot enter the area. ABB SafeMove software can transform any connected industrial robot with higher payloads and faster speeds into a collaborative application.

Eales explains that currently mining robotic applications include anything from the robust automatic changing of heavy mining truck tyres to tasks in the processing and handling of materials in a laboratory.  Refuelling of these trucks is yet another application involving robotics, together with the charging of blasting holes with explosives in underground mining and the cleaning out of mining trucks, regarded as quite a dangerous activity.

Additional robotics applications are cutting, welding (arc and MIG C02) and drilling. These for example, use a vision technology, in which case the robot interfaces with very accurate camera imaging – enabling the robot to identify positioning and colour for precision tasks.  This lends itself to applications for welding inspections with this vision system  making sure that there are no flaws in the weld quality. “There are of course new applications that we cannot reveal at this time, as they are in development and pilot phases,” Eales adds. Currently, cutting, welding and material handling applications are the most popular in the ABB mining industry business.

Jamie Van Schoor, CEO of Dwyka Mining Services, is a mining technology advocate for Human PLUS Machine solutions, with a focus on bringing improved safety, greater efficiencies and sustainable value to mines. The company is an authorised reseller for Emesent autonomous drones, and more recently the Boston Dynamics® Spot® Enterprise robot. Both technologies offer mines unique solutions to access the previously inaccessible. With the Emesent Hovermap ,  GPS-denied drones don’t need satellite connectivity when flying underground into ‘no go’ zones, while the agile, dog-like robot, Spot, can navigate dangerous terrain, enabling mines to automate routine inspection tasks to capture data safely, accurately, and more frequently.

 The benefits

The overriding benefits are those that involve efficiencies and precision while achieving ZERO harm. Van Schoor refers to his company mantra in highlighting the benefits that robots can bring, “Robots are the answer when it comes to the ‘no go, fly low and create flow’ challenges in the mining and AEC  space. Spot is a mobile ground robotics tool, while the drone is an aerial robotics tool.

“Spot is specifically helpful in the South African market in that our legacy mining methodologies do not easily facilitate the use of autonomous drones. In long haul open stoping, for example, large stopes, haulages and tunnels facilitate the use of drones. However, in South Africa the average stoping heights of gold and platinum mines become challenging, vis-à-vis the adoption of Spot to adapt and extract the same kind of visualisation with agile ground robotics.”

Van Schoor continues, “Robots are the ideal solution for ‘no go areas.’ The dynamic nature of mining often requires the inspection of unsupported areas in a mine, which can be the most dangerous place to be. This is where robots like Spot – with additional payloads such as infrared and stereoscopic cameras, gas monitoring, acoustic sensors and autonomous capabilities, such as the SLAM LiDAR scanning from Emesent’s Hovermap for 3D point cloud capture and autonomous navigation – can assist without putting a human into potentially dangerous situations. Spot, like the natural canine, can also ‘see and hear’ things humans can’t with specialised partner payloads like the Fluke SV600 Acoustic Imager, which can hear bearings that are faulty or the hissing of a damaged compressed airline and then visualise it on a heat map – and more!”

‘Fly low’ is the second benefit, explains Van Schoor. This is where the robot would need to get into confined spaces like narrow reef mining and old worked out areas where a drone’s autonomy can become restrictive, as hanging wall heights range between 1.8 – 2.2m.  “Dust and fumes do not affect Spot. This creates applications for exploration into old workings where turbulence from drone propellers could kick up fines, making for challenging navigation on a drone, but possible with Spot,’’ adds Van Schoor.

The third benefit is to ‘create flow’ with consistent, repeatable data for progress reporting. For example, scanning at the same height and speed for underground applications, like survey geometries and pillar sizing, blast face mapping and construction change management – the end goal is to have repeatable datasets captured during times when humans aren’t permitted to be underground.

“Our philosophy here is for robots do the heavy lifting while humans leave or make their way to the working face after or before a shift – complementing the work force not competing with them,” says Van Schoor.  “Spot can be sent fully charged on pre-programmed auto walks, and connected over WiFi, we can literally control Spot from the surface without having to send anyone underground to scan or to check something critical up to 25 minutes from a strategically placed charging dock. Trained operators can also operate Spot while they perform other tasks on surface – a cost factor that is often overlooked and an investment to attract young talent to augment the future digital workforce.” These are just some of the advantages robots can offer when it comes to the danger zone.

Slow adoption

According to Eales, although robotics applications have been available for some time, there has been a slow adoption in South Africa, and Africa in particular in the ABB business , for various reasons. Although South Africa is keeping up with global counterparts using in robotics in the automotive industry, this is however not the case in mining, food and beverage or general industry. With slow adoption comes low demand, which affects the speed of local development . Cost of design and implementation is also a contributing factor to slow adoption, but emphasis on OEE and ROI with KPI’s such as increasing quality and safety should be considered.

 Why the lag?

Eales   cites two main challenges the industry is currently dealing with: The first being a lack of education on what value robots can add to the industry, resulting in inhibited perceptions around robotics and job opportunity, and the second being the appropriate managing and maintenance of the technology once installed.

Industry adoption, particularly in South Africa, is slow because of a negative attitude towards the technology, “The perception out there is that robots will replace humans in the job market, while the opposite is in fact true – the adoption of robotics will lead to job creation, albeit ‘different types of jobs’ – upskilling is a major requirement for this kind of technology, opening up opportunities in other fields.” Eales explains using an analogy: Hybrid vehicles have entered the market, and with the price of fuel as it stands, the demand for these vehicles will grow, however suddenly there will be demand for the servicing and maintenance of these vehicles, not to mention the demand for vehicle charging hubs the nation over. This will automatically result in new opportunities and job creation to build these auxiliary products, services and infrastructure, and further to this, a drive to upskill people to manage and maintain this new technology.

Connectivity is a vital building block to connect the devices/robots/drones that are going to be able to collect and offload data quickly to enable faster decision making. Image credit: Shaun Davies at Dwyka Mining Services

Connectivity is a vital building block to connect the devices/robots/drones that are going to be able to collect and offload data quickly to enable faster decision making. Image credit: Shaun Davies at Dwyka Mining Services

“And this is the case I want to make for robotics. It is time to look at the long-term positives in bringing robotic technology to the fore. The mine of today cannot afford NOT to keep up with adoption of this technology, which will ultimately grow stronger in the next twenty years. Technology can improve safety, quality and efficiencies, and without these, a business loses its competitive edge, and in fact, might then be in a situation where the operation is no longer sustainable, possibly leading to job losses in the long-term.” It is therefore imperative to educate the industry on the value robots bring to the mining industry.

Van Schoor adds that in his experience South African mines are often different to African mines and the resultant uptake of his product has therefore been different. “The big differentiator is the Rand versus Dollar base. African mines have been quicker to adopt autonomous functionality, as they are accustomed to imported global technologies without a local supplier base, and as a result are less ‘dollar sensitive’.

“Although the uptake of robotics has been slow, the African capabilities in the space of mining automation have been at the forefront in global terms,” says Van Schoor. He cites the example of the Finsch Diamond Mine autonomous trucking as a pioneering project. So, it’s not that automation is not mature or advanced in the sector, it is just that smaller mobile robotics are not linked directly to production, and the ‘new-dog on the block’ is taking time to embed the benefits.

He concurs with Eales, and he cites the more pronounced legacy issues when it comes to labour concerns in South Africa where there is a fear of losing jobs. He notes, “The reality is that people are afraid of losing their jobs, especially after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the current stressed economy. My answer to this is that this whole technology space is about human PLUS machine, there is not a single technology that we sell, or represent, or have implemented, that doesn’t involve humans to unpack it, deploy it, manage it, and maintain it. There are certain applications where machines do a much better job, more safely than the repetitive nature of the human. It’s about consultative collaboration and framing the value of the safety efficiency that these solutions will deliver for the mine of the future.”

Van Schoor emphasises that the adoption of robotics in the industry will be linked to the degree of connectivity available on the mine. His estimate that, at most, one in five African underground mines are fully connected to the face and are therefore still in the process of building a platform for robotics and autonomous vehicles. Connectivity is a vital building block to connect the devices/robots/drones that are going to be able to collect and offload data quickly to enable faster decision making. “We always want to make better, faster decisions to limit downtime and inefficiencies in mining, more safely,” he adds.

<Heading3> What of cost and managing robotics systems?

“There is no price for replacing a human life, secondly the pay-back period of a robot could be as short as 3-4 years, depending on application and the process involved. Another concern is the cost of maintenance and local support on the system. Local backup from the OEM should be considered, and as with any mechanical equipment, the system should be serviced as per the manufacturer’s requirement.  The benefits of regular quality maintenance far outweigh the risk of down time and resultant cost of loss of production,” says Eales.

Overcoming the challenges

To this end, ABB offers service and maintenance support locally to customers. “ABB robotics has a fully-fledged training facility with various training courses such as maintenance training, operator training, specific application training and advanced application programming, just to mention a few. “Appropriate training is a necessity for proper design, implementation and maintenance of robotic systems,” says Eales.

She adds, “As far as changing the mindset and the upskilling of the industry is concerned, ABB engages and is in partnership with various universities and TVET colleges. There is, however, a lot of work to be done in educating, informing and convincing the decision makers in the mining industry. With current mining applications and global references, ABB could assist in convincing the industry of the benefits when it comes to safety, quality and efficiency.”

Van Schoor concurs that the skills and capabilities to adopt these technologies are essential and the involvement of tertiary institutions makes the voice louder. He also agrees, “It is essential to work closely with operations to demonstrate the return on investment, so that they in turn can unpack the benefits to the C-suite.”

What is clear is that there is a huge opportunity for robotics on the continent of Africa in the mining industry. There is, however, a misconception in terms of how this tech will impact the labour force. The positives are being missed – new and different job creation will ensue. The accuracy, long-term reduction in costs and increased safety for human beings are the advantages in using this technology. The creativity, adaptability and critical, analytic decision-making skills of people in certain tasks will, however, never be attained with machines, and therefore the Human PLUS Machine concept is one that makes more sense.

Go to Technology – African Mining Online to view video clips of robotics in action.


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“There are two main objectives in mind when it comes to mining, the first being the safety of people, and secondly the enabling of a combination of cost and productivity efficiencies.”