Automation in mining can reduce wage bills while increasing efficiency and output, but new technology is not cheap. Has the industry reached the tipping point, at last, in its journey to the fully autonomous mine? By Geoff Harper
Automation is increasingly becoming part of the everyday procedures and forward strategy of mining operations both for cost/efficiency reasons and enhanced safety in areas traditionally hazardous to human beings. Technology includes the remote control of drill and other equipment and management software. To answer these needs, several companies have developed a range of autonomous technology and associated equipment solutions.
Other advantages of the implementation of autonomous and remote mining include improved productivity, reduced maintenance, better working conditions and reduced dependence on the availability of sufficient specialist labour.
Autonomous haulage is a key element of the fully autonomous mine and this sector is far more advanced than on-road autonomous vehicles, which have legislative impediments. But the integration of drilling with other mining operations, together with extraction and transportation, depends on management systems that, in turn, depend on the appropriate software and integration of systems.
A recent research report from Future Market Insights (FMI), Smart Mining Market: Global Industry Analysis and Opportunity Assessment 2015-2020, expects smart mining to be worth US$13 billion by 2020 with a projected compound annual growth rate of 14.5% over the next five years. FMI's end-user survey revealed almost 88% of surface and underground mining companies that responded are making use of smart technology of some kind.
FMI estimates that the smart mining market in the APEJ (Asia Pacific Excluding Japan) region will expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 16% through 2020.
Rio Tinto is one company committed to the development of autonomous mining through its ‘Mine of the Future’ programme. The company believes that innovation and technology are critical to productivity and safety improvements that will increasingly remove people from harm as boundaries in automation are pushed, and has already seen improvements demonstrated by its trucks and drills.
The autonomous drills at the company’s West Angelas mine site have delivered an increase of around 10% over manually operated drills and an operational cost saving of 8%. West Angelas is the only fully autonomous production drill site in the world, with seven autonomous drills having drilled over 2.25 million metres.
The company says its AutoHaul project will, when in operation, be the world’s first fully autonomous long distance heavy haul railway and will further improve the efficiency and productivity of our iron ore business. A manned train has two shift changes every, which means almost two hours loss of run time per day can be gained back day using the system. An additional benefit will be the elimination of the cost of transporting drivers to the changeover points.
Improved productivity through Big Data is a new area where value is being delivered across Rio Tinto. The company’s computational infrastructure includes a cloud-based, web-enabled big data server cluster that is inexpensive to operate and rapidly expandable. The team that developed and now administers this solution includes data scientists at the Rio Tinto Innovation centre in Pune, India, the Rio Tinto Excellence Centre in Brisbane and Rio Tinto site-based subject matter experts.
The system is not confined to the company’s mobile equipment fleet, but is being expanded to include fixed plant equipment. A typical process plant could have as many as 30,000 sensors that provide a rich source of data.
Greg Lilleyman, Rio Tinto group executive, Technology and Innovation, says, “We continue to build on this with other world-class productivity initiatives, which will be supported by group-wide analytics capabilities and delivered through our world-leading Excellence Centres and Innovation Centres.”
Look to the future
Sandvik is another company with an eye on the future of autonomous mining. The company offers real-time observation of underground mining operations using information management solutions providing information online about equipment locations, availability, utilisation, conditions and productivity, as well as possible delays or problems, so that corrective action can be taken quickly.
The company says equipment automation, also offered, helps increase fleet utilisation, improve working conditions and safety, increase production, and reduce maintenance costs with optimised tramming speeds and smoother equipment operation, from single equipment to full-fleet automation.
Brian Carroll, company works manager UK & Ireland, reveals that the company is currently beginning its Automine Lite autonomous project at Tara Mines in Ireland: “Tara Mines are currently kicking off a three-week trial of Automine Lite loader to minimise work stoppages and increase working times of the machine between shifts. Everything has been working well so far (touch wood) but we are in the infancy stages here.”
Automine Lite includes a communication system with wireless network coverage, real-time data transfer, wireless network coverage for LHD, network cabling between WiFi access points, operator station and ACS access barriers plus standard IP communications. The MineLan plug-and-play system is pre-configured and simple with WiFi boosted fast-roaming wideband, radio network identifiers and ruggedised access point and client hardware.
Options include rock breaker interface to prevent autonomous dumping, surface control room connectivity and an interface to its database to report system queries.
In addition, the company’s AutoMine MPM provides safe and optimised mining in panel and block cave mines with a field-proven system featuring: real-time information management; precise draw control for block/panel caving operations; accurate real-time tracking of manually operated fleet; exact condition and production monitoring; and a seamless integration with external systems.
As early as 1998 Atlas Copco, another leader in smart mining technology, introduced a computerised rig control system (RCS), which is now the common automation platform for the firm’s underground and surface equipment with more than 3,500 fifth-generation RCS rigs in operation throughout the world.
The company claims its remote control system, RCS5 (also in its fifth generation) is more comprehensive and user friendly than ever before. Touchscreens display clear, coloured menus to remotely review and drill planned patterns. RCS5 has simple fault-finding and diesel engine information. It also offers fast data transmission of information, enabling informed decision-making quickly. Data collection can be collected in different formats and then reviewed using different programs and integration. IREDES (International Rock Excavation Data Exchange Standard) is the file format used for electronic drill plans, drill quality logs and navigation information files, which can be created using Underground Manager or other design programs with the correct export functionality.
Remote operation technology enables operators to control machines from a safe location. Atlas Copco’s automated drilling system is able to operate in challenging open and subterranean mines ensuring holes are correctly collared, drilled to the correct depth in the correct position and cleaned. Its intelligent monitoring system detects when a drill-bit is jammed. Rod changing is by Automatic Multi Pass.
In addition Atlas Copco has a remote data collection and viewing program (Remote Monitoring) to retrieve data wirelessly through an installed network or via a handheld device. This data can include total drill metres, total tonnes, utilisation and machine faults in a standard OPC format, which can be integrated into other control systems. Drilling information from underground rigs can include penetration rate, dampening pressure, rotation speed, and water flow, which can be collated and viewed using the company’s Underground Manager system.
Autonomous mining is progressing rapidly throughout the world and will continue to move forward, but how quickly and how fully depends on a variety of factors, not entirely economic. Environmental concerns play a part and so do improvements in working conditions. The global spread and inevitable onward development of this technology plus the spur of commercial competition are probably the factors that will provide the ‘tip’.
In the future we might expect remote mine operators to be driven to work in their autonomous cars to work in fully autonomous mines and live a life surrounded and to some extent governed, by the technology by which they’re served. However, changing circumstances and external influences are bound to have their effects, so the nature of the technology and its application remains uncertain.
An engineer speaks…
Michael Murphy, chief engineer of Mining Enabled Solutions at Caterpillar Inc., offers his thoughts on autonomous mining. "Automation is enabled by technologies such as high-precision GPS, object detection systems using radar and lidar. More importantly, automation is enabled by new algorithms and software that allow a machine to have very consistent operation and interaction with other machines and light vehicles. At the heart of automation are the thousands of lines of code that manage the exceptions that occur in a mining operation. Unlike remote control, the on-board machine computers in conjunction with the office software make the decision and actuate steering, brakes, body hoist, drill steel, bucket or blade. In our set-up, the role of the MineStar Controller is to manage the exceptions rather than to control the machine.
"In the case of autonomous trucks, the vehicles have all of the same capabilities as a manned truck. They received their assignments from MineStar office. The high-precision GPS along with inertial systems and on-board maps guide them to the loading tool. The truck reverses to exactly where the loading tool operator has requested it to spot. Itcan reverse in on the blind side as it does not use mirrors, hence reducing truck exchange time. The safety systems are continually monitoring the location of other machines and vehicles just like air traffic control. If a vehicle, gets too close to the autonomous truck then it will stop. Once it arrives at the dump, the office software has provided the truck with the best location to dump and it reverses just like a manned truck, stops and then automates the hoist lever to dump the material. Just like a manned truck it then lowers the body, gets its assignment and heads to the next loading tool.”
With regard to the value of automation, Murphy believes this comes from the consistency of operation. He says: “The machines consistently do the same thing every time when given the same set of operation conditions. This results in a safer environment. Automation does require a strong focus on process compliance. Without this focus, then mining customers will fail to achieve the benefits of automation. However, there is great opportunity to change and optimise processes. Manufacturing has gone through significant automation over the past 40 years, which has driven greater quality, safety and lower costs. Mining is now beginning that journey. Given the mining industry is a late adopter, there is a big opportunity to leverage the newer technology and make stair step gains."