Robots to go underground

24 November 2011 - 02:56 By SIPHO MASOMBUKA

Researchers are hard at work developing a blueprint for the development of robots needed to mine the country's R7-trillion in unexplored gold deposits.

The robots will be able to go where no humans have reached and work in extreme heat to extract more gold and enable mines to operate longer.

Jeremy Green, senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said mining companies mine past these vast gold deposits as they are not viable enough for human-led operations.

"The gold reef is only between 5cm and 30cm thick, but to put people in there to mine, you need to take out one metre of earth to get to the gold," he said.

"If we could make a robot to take out 30cm, there is lots of gold that could be mined because presently there's lots of gold that we have mined past."

Green was one of the researchers attending a three-day conference on robotics and mechatronics. Mechatronics is the combination of mechanical engineering and electronics for the design and development of new manufacturing techniques.

The conference aims to bring together researchers, academics and engineers as well as policy makers for the development of South Africa's manufacturing and automation industries

Green said his particular project demonstrated that the fears that robots would take over people's jobs was a myth because robots could actually create more jobs.

"I also believe South Africa has a unique opportunity to implement robotics in our deep gold mines. It will allow the mines to operate for much longer," he said.

Green said deep mines were getting hotter.

"So there's potential for the robots to go deeper to get out more gold than would be humanly possible to get. There is lot more gold there, so it is not taking away people's jobs but creating additional jobs," he said.

Green said the first prototype safety robot should be up and running by 2013.

"Seventy percent of our robots are in the automotive industry putting together vehicles and about 20% in welding and we have some in assembly plants putting together circuit boards. These are big and are bolted to the floor and do not move around."