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Underground mining may have become a bit safer with the completion this March of a mining automation project in Copper Cliff, Ontario. A consortium including Toronto-based nickel producer Inco and equipment manufacturer Sandvik Tamrock launched the project five years ago; its goal was remote control, from the surface, of the machinery essential to hard-rock mining. Success means that for the first time workers would venture underground only to assemble the machinery and, occasionally, for maintenance work. Uninhabited tunnels would be smaller, and miners wouldn’t have to hike a kilometer every morning just to reach equipment-advances that would mean higher productivity.

The machines-outfitted with cameras and radio transmitters-are separated from the surface by hundreds of meters of rock, so they can use an unlimited range of radio frequencies without jamming surface transmissions. Partially unshielded coaxial cables fed into the mine serve as antennas, relaying real-time visual data to operators aboveground, who can control as many as three machines simultaneously with joysticks and foot pedals.

The project’s first successes were a ceiling drill and a front-end loader; the remaining machines, including a truck for hauling ore, will roll out over the next five years.

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