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Four years ago, Leigh Ann Booysen worked grueling shifts at Kumba’s Kolomela iron ore mine as a drill operator. That meant sitting on a truck-sized drilling machine in an iron ore pit for eight hours, drilling holes for explosives before blasting. Today, she proudly boasts to her family that she works an office job – and yet, she’s never drilled more, or better, holes in her life.

Leigh Ann is at the forefront of a technology revolution that is changing the face of Kumba’s operations – and indeed, the entire iron ore mining industry. She is now one of a team responsible for operating Kumba’s fleet of automated drilling machines from a safe, air-conditioned control centre next to the mine’s offices.

It’s not just the drill operators’ lives that have improved. The rise in productivity has been dramatic. Operating hours are up 20%, from 14 to 17 hours a day, the quality of the drill holes has improved, and fewer drilling machines will be needed over the lifetime of the mine.

The robotic drilling machines are part of an R500 million investment in technology by Kumba at its mines in the Northern Cape as part of its efforts to make mining safer, more productive and more environment-friendly. It’s literally cutting-edge technology, with Kumba being one of only two iron ore miners in the world to use autonomous drills, along with BHP Billiton’s Yandi mine in Western Australia.

The machines aren’t only taking over the drilling operations, though. The skies are also a lot busier over Kumba’s Kolomela and Sishen mines these days, with a fleet of 10 drones providing information on everything from where mining has taken place to current stockpiles.

Make no mistake, these are not the drones you find buzzing over your house or in the local park over weekends. Kumba has spent more than R6 million on its fleet, which includes both fixed-wing and quadcopter drones, fitted with state-of-the-art cameras and laser scanners, which are used to create three-dimensional images and surveys. They are operated by five staff members who have received specialized training as drone pilots, and are fully licenced by the SA Civil Aviation Authority to do so.

The benefits have been immediate, with the drones providing information and data on Kumba’s operations that used to take days, or even weeks, to accumulate. In many cases, they are delivering new data that wasn’t accessible before, and is allowing Kumba to operate far more efficiently than before.

Not all the technologies are as glamorous as robotic drills or drones – but they are no less effective in contributing to a modern mining operation. Kumba is particularly proud of its Advanced Process Control (ACP) system, which in simple terms controls the flow of material through the processing plant, with fewer interruptions and better quality.

And then there’s the autonomous braking for Kumba’s haul trucks, which automatically brings the massive trucks to a stop to avoid collisions and accidents. More than 10 trucks have already been fitted with the new braking system.

The best part of the technology strategy, says Bongi Ntsoelengoe, Technology Manager at Kumba Iron Ore; not a single job has been lost in the process.

“Rather than replacing employees, we have shown that using technology in our operations improves skills and provides an opportunity for staff to develop and grow. Better working conditions mean employees are excited and motivated about their work environment, which makes for a more productive, safer workplace,” says Ntsoelengoe.

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