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Editorial comment

My partner and I recently settled down to watch a new show on Netflix – Instant Hotel. As the title suggests, the series follows a group of five homeowners who convert their pads into luxury hotels. Competing for the title of best Instant Hotel and AUS$100 000, each team spends a night at their competitor’s rental, before rating their experience and voting on the winners.


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The first episode of Season 2 takes us to the remote terrain of Coober Pedy, an opal mining town in South Australia. We’re given a virtual tour of the hoteliers’ unique desert dugout, and as the camera pans round, it’s hard not to notice the rainbow colours embedded in the walls.

Getting home after a long day at work, the last thing I expected to see and hear on TV was opal mining in the Australian outback. I was surprised, to say the least. It then occurred to me that opal mining is not something that’s been discussed before in Global Mining Review. Until now.

A particularly niche commodity to mine, opal is one of the few minerals that can be extracted economically, traditionally by shaft sinking with a pickaxe and shovel.

This ‘old-school’ method is where a shaft is sunk straight into the earth until opal dirt is revealed. Here, the miner would branch off to the side to follow the opal levels, before carefully hand extracting any opal discovered. The majority of the time, this involved a team of two: one underground in the hole and the other above-ground to rig up a windlass to haul out the dirt.

The mining industry in general has since moved on from this laborious technique, of course. Nowadays, instead of hand tools, excavators, haulers, drills, blasting tools and crushing equipment are all commonplace on mine sites. And pretty much every piece of machinery has experienced a revamp in one form or another. While some still view the industry as being old-fashioned, recent technological advancements have changed the face of mining entirely.

Autonomous haulage systems, for example, are driving productivity and safety improvements at mines worldwide, pioneered by market leaders Caterpillar and Komatsu.

In line with autonomous haulage systems, we are now seeing more and more battery electric vehicles (BEVs) around mine sites. In a bid to address climate change, the industry has been consciously adapting and increasing its use of BEVs to replace diesel alternatives. Something else worth noting: it’s no secret that mining software birthed the creation of ‘smart mines’. With the applications of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and Big Data, smart mines are digitally connected and operations are optimised in all aspects.

With this, mining companies are deploying the latest sensor-based technologies at their sites. Advanced data analytics can be implemented to analyse raw data to generate trends, patterns and relationships. This information is then presented to miners in real time on their mobile devices and, as a result, are able to focus on maximising onsite productivity.

Even drones are making their entrance into the mining industry. A far cry from being used by influencers and online content creators, drones can now be seen collecting aerial data at mining facilities. This solution replaces manual inspections in what can be dangerous areas, whilst providing operators with the ease of collecting critical information, drastically reducing the time and manpower required.

Without a doubt, it’s an exciting time for mining, as the industry is set to become more automated in the coming years. But one thing’s for sure: that doesn’t mean you can’t grab your pickaxe once in a while, for old times’ sake. Especially if you happen to find yourself in Coober Pedy!

 

  1. ‘How is Opal Mined?’, Opals Down Under, http://www.opalsdownunder.com.au/learn-about-opals/intermediate/how-opal-mined