IROC, or not

Ray Ballantyne*

Are mine control centres moving too far away, too quickly, from their original purpose?

Mines have had control rooms, or centres, for many years, pre-dating the digital monitoring, communication and intelligence capabilities that are now driving their rapid evolution. A crucial question today is, where should they be located?

In the 1970s control rooms for openpit mines were most commonly located either on the side of a pit or overseeing a major dumping area.

Being able to look out a window at the operation was regarded as an important source of information.

A very early (1970s) form of mine control at an openpit iron ore mine in South Africa featured a tower beside the main haul road leading in and out of the pit. All trucks passed the tower when returning from dumping ore or waste. As an empty truck approached an operator in the tower would step out onto a balcony and hold up a large sign telling the truck driver which shovel to go to next.

The site went through several generations of applying digital technology to support the process before becoming one of the first sites to use computerised truck dispatch.

Another early adopter had line-of-sight as a central part of information relays.

The openpit iron ore mine in Western Australia (1982) had only ore movements. All waste had been removed by pre-stripping. Trucks dumped occurred either directly to a rail loadout or an adjacent stockpile.

A control room on a remnant stockpile that overlooked the dumping areas gave the controller a clear view of every truck as it dumped. Each time a truck dumped a load the controller recorded the event.

The only technology in play was a set of binoculars and a hand-held radio.

On the other side of the control room the controller could look down on a workshop and clearly see the go-line and no-go-line.

Seeing underground

Obviously with underground operations there are limitations on the information available by line-of-sight.

However, similar early examples continued a theme.

An underground operation with surface mine control positioned the control station so that a controller had a direct view of the pulley wheel at the top of the headframe.

The controller could see, at a glance, if the winder was operating.

This site also had the control room opposite a tag (brass) board so the controllers could see who was underground. This became a very common configuration and at a number of sites the controllers could actually read the names on the tags without leaving their station.

The author previously published criteria for selecting a location for an embedded mine control room at an underground mine. They should be close to the:

  • Tag board
  • Shift supervisor’s office
  • Muster room

Clearly, the criteria are based on leveraging benefits of face-to-face contact.

Technological intervention

Technology developments have changed the way some information is captured and communicated to and from a control room.

Technology has also influenced the possibilities of where control rooms can be located.

On the other hand technology has, at times, constrained the location.

As computing and digital communications became more pervasive, the mine control hut on the side of a pit became something of a challenge. The need for a quality, regulated continuous power supply and the provision of network connectivity away from administrative buildings was seen as an unnecessary cost. So the control room was moved from a “natural” location – embedded in the operation – to an administration facility.

Removed from the front-line action but still on site.

This led to another change.

Site hut control rooms on the edge of a pit were generally staffed by supervisory operations personnel. But no self-respecting supervisor wanted to sit in an administration office for a whole shift. Mine control was shifting toward being a clerical or administrative role.

Integrated and remote

Over the past 15 years or more the concept of an integrated remote operations centre (IROC) has developed in the mining industry.

The first and most visible adopters of the IROC concept in mining have been the large surface iron ore and coal producers.

These operations typically feature multiple mines with complex rail networks linking with multiple processing and stockpile blending facilities feeding one or more distant port facilities.

The choice of mine control centre location has become an important and often emotive topic

The operators tend to be the same companies actively pursuing autonomous operation of mobile mining and rail equipment.

The choice of mine control centre location has become an important and often emotive topic.

We see today three types of control room, based on their location relative to mining operations.

  • Embedded, where a supervisor can visit the control room while working without leaving their normal work area. An example is a mill control station located in a mill.
  • Site, where a supervisor can use transport to easily visit a control room outside of their normal working area. The example is mine control at a mine administration office.
  • Remote, where a control room is too distant for a supervisor to visit operations while working. Here we have the city-based IROC.


It should be stressed that terms such as embedded, site and remote are independent of whether the capability is good or bad.

Neither are they synonyms for ‘integrated’ or ‘dedicated’.

Embedded mine control

An embedded control room is, by definition, dedicated to a single discipline within the value chain.

So its focus is on openpit mining, underground mining, primary crushing and coarse ore stockpile, processing plant, or product dispatch logistics. There may be cases where two adjoining disciplines can be co-located in the same embedded control room, at the interface of their respective operations, such as with mine control and primary crusher control.

Advantages of embedded mine control include:

  • The controller’s familiarity with the field workforce; they often travel to work together.
  • It is convenient for shift supervisors to visit mine control for discussions.
  • Field supervisors can interchange in the controller role.
  • The ease of having controllers visit the operation regularly.
  • A large amount of incidental information reaches the controllers.
  • Controllers can attend shift pre-start meetings.
  • Shift hand-over is improved.
  • It enables rapid response to developing situations.
  • Safety is improved based on local knowledge of the operation and its ERT capabilities.
  • The control room becomes the first point of contact in an emergency.


Potential disadvantages of embedded mine control are:

  • It is largely focused on tactical decisions.
  • Minute-by-minute decisions can mean lower priority items are overlooked.
  • It can promote bias in relation to contractor versus owner, or operations versus maintenance, focus.
  • A single operating division can be represented, rather than lateral integration across the value chain.
  • Delivering and sustaining IT infrastructure can be an “additional” cost.

Site mine control

It is quite common for an openpit mine’s control room to be located some distance from mine operations, typically at a location where IT and communications infrastructure are available.

So mine control and dispatch can be in a mine administration building rather than overlooking the pit, for example.

While carrying out a review of a site operations centre, the author discovered that none of the openpit dispatchers, or controllers, had visited the pit in more than two years

This affects the ease of first-hand communication between a controller and field supervisor. The supervisor has to make an effort to explicitly travel to the site control room to interact face-to-face with a controller.  Similarly, controllers can be isolated from the operation.

While carrying out a review of a site operations centre, the author discovered that none of the openpit dispatchers, or controllers, had visited the pit in more than two years.

Strengths of site mine control include:

  • Mine control can be close to site engineering, scheduling, design and geology professionals.
  • Quality IT and communications infrastructure can easily connect to a control room.
  • Control functions for multiple disciplines can easily be co-located and share infrastructure.
  • The integration potential.
  • The control room becomes incident control in any emergency.


Site mine control weaknesses may be:

  • Reduced face-to-face interaction with operations.
  • Inconvenience for supervisors in visiting mine control.
  • A controller’s role tends to become more clerical/administrative rather than operational.
  • Separation from pre-shift meetings.

The industry has developed what I would describe as an almost irrational obsessive fervour for IROCs

Remote mine control

The industry has developed what I would describe as an almost irrational obsessive fervour for IROCs.

There is a saying that, “technical people do things because they can”.

Technology has allowed parts of the mine control process to be located long distances from mining operations.

Does moving mine control to a remote location add value or detract from the benefits of having control close to an operation?

Remote control works in many industries, such as for offshore oil and gas platforms, and fixed processing plants.

However, these are cases where the remote control room has the capability to “control” the equipment, turn things on and off, adjust levels, rates and speeds, etc, without intervention from site-based operators.

In other sectors, particularly logistics, it is impossible to have embedded control so it is necessarily remote.

The author has highlighted the value of familiarity and face-to-face contact between controllers and both field supervisors and equipment operators. Sharon Dawson, director of Dawsons Group, similarly highlighted the value of face-to-face communication.

Genchi Genbutsu is one of the fundamental principles of The Toyota Way. It encourages managers to “go and have a look”. Mine controllers are part of a shift management team, but in a remote IROC scenario, they can’t “go and have a look”.

A “ROC execution strategy” prepared for a client by a highly regarded consultancy in 2008 identified that there were risks in moving to a model of remote operations control.

“While there are many potential benefits that can enhance [the client’s] operations, there are also many risks. With a shift of operational roles away from the mine face, this development will be an agent for operational change that can potentially enhance or undermine current operational success.”

Benefits of remote mine control can include:

  • Ease of recruitment. Controllers do not need to work in remote locations.
  • Adjoining divisions can be co-located for lateral integration.
  • Co-location of various horizons of planning, and vertical integration.
  • Coordination of multiple, geographically diverse operations.
  • Suits logistics networks with no single embedded location, such as long-haul road transport and rail systems.



  • Communications infrastructure dependency.
  • Controller-site relationship is compromised.
  • A controller’s knowledge of an operation is reduced and not current.
  • Incidental face-to-face communications do not reach the control room.
  • Reaction to developing situations can be delayed.


Removing mine control from its natural embedded to a non-embedded location opens the way for co-location of multiple control rooms servicing different disciplines.

There are various benefits in having monitoring and control functions from mixed disciplines co-located in a central integrated facility, and specific benefits where there is a critical point of interface between two disciplines. For example, where we have a mine direct dump to primary crushers, or between a power station and mill on start-up.

By centralising the various dedicated control room functions into a single integrated facility some controllers are necessarily located further away from areas frequented by their respective supervisors than would be the case with embedded dedicated control rooms

In the pits: virtual collaboration and hybrids

Can virtual collaboration replicate the magic of being side-by-side?

Espousing the benefits of integrated control, Mark Dwyer, global director – integrated operations and remotisation, digital, questioned whether it was necessary to have the all the components of an IROC co-located.

Can virtual collaboration replicate the magic of being side-by-side?

Communications technology can enable virtual collaboration, which can be enhanced with evolving capabilities such as virtual reality.

Dwyer also suggested a hybrid approach could be introduced whereby elements of the IROC were not co-located.

Consider Formula 1 car racing, where probably the most technically advanced four-wheeled vehicles on Earth are crewed by a human driver.

Where is the control function that interacts with a driver?

On the pit wall!

Controllers are located in an embedded control room.

Each F1 team also has 40 or more people working back at the factory during each race, supported by huge computing power and in some cases a reserve driver in a simulator, providing a different level of analysis to support the control delivered from the pit wall.

This constitutes a hybrid model combining an embedded control room on the pit wall and a remote capability at the factory.

The game-changer

Where mobile equipment is crewed by human operators and human supervisors are able to visit the work locations of equipment during a shift there are huge benefits in having a quality embedded mine control room.

As technology has helped move mine control further away from operations, specific benefits can be seen to drop off with distance.

Once mobile equipment fleet becomes fully non-crewed benefits of inter-personnel contact provided by an embedded model no longer exist

However, other benefits can accrue. Lateral integration via co-location with other operations or divisions, and vertical integration with a range of planning horizons, are the two big ones.

The game changer is the evolution toward autonomous or remote-controlled mobile equipment (non-crewed). Once mobile equipment fleet becomes fully non-crewed benefits of inter-personnel contact provided by an embedded model no longer exist.

The author concludes that remote mine control gains are predicated on having operations that are not crewed.

Certain types of operation have progressed down the path of autonomy for mobile mining equipment, particularly with autonomous openpit trucks. On the other hand, large sections of the mining industry remain reliant on having a human operator in mobile equipment.

There is a danger in assuming that a control model suitable for an uncrewed facility, such as an offshore oil platform, can be applied to a mine where mobile equipment is crewed. The differences increase with underground mines where digital communications to face-working locations is difficult to achieve and sustain.

There are options to mitigate this problem.

The hybrid model mentioned above is one.

Alternatively, a model where a remote control room is staffed by site supervisors on a rotation basis, regularly switching between site and IROC roles.

A closing anecdote

A miner working alone in a mine shaft collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Mine control was in the shaft building: an embedded control room.

After some time the controller realised he hadn’t received an expected call from the miner. He interrogated the control room computer system which had the last known location of the miner, so the controller was able to contact an underground supervisor and direct him to investigate. The collapsed miner was found and the controller implemented emergency procedures. He managed the recovery effort, coordinating vehicles, hoist, paramedics, ambulance and an evacuation helicopter.

Medical advice indicated the miner was within 10 minutes of dying when he reached the surface and received medical attention.

The incident debriefing the next day noted that the time from discovering the collapsed miner until he reached the surface was 25 minutes. Previously, the quickest medical evacuation had been 45 minutes. That means our miner probably would not have survived.

Credit for the speed of the evacuation was given to having 24/7 control room staffing; use of a computer system to establish the miner’s location; the experience and knowledge of the controller; and having radios underground.

I doubt this incident would have had the same positive outcome if the control room was remotely located hundreds or thousands of kilometres away in a city.

*A former mine systems analyst, and mining consultant and trainer for 40 years, Ray Ballantyne has worked with operators to establish about 60 mine control rooms in six countries. He developed and commercalised the original PitRAM mine control system. In 2016/2017 he worked with one of the world’s largest mining companies on establishing the mine control process for a major underground mine. And he is currently advising another mining major on implementation of an advanced underground mine control system.


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