How robots are changing the mining sector

From how materials are extracted and transported, to the ways in which sites are controlled and monitored, robots are reimagining mining – and they’re proving to be a valuable investment.

Mining can be a dirty, dangerous and complex business. Extracting raw materials from the earth places heavy demands on humans – lives are put at risk on a daily basis. But things are changing.

Smart machines have arrived on site. They’re working alongside humans above and below ground to boost capabilities, as well as taking over the most hazardous tasks, which operators can now control from afar – and the impact is significant.

While this shift towards automation in the mining sector is set to have a global impact, much of this new tech is currently being trialled in the far reaches of Western Australia. We take a look at some of these robots in action and how they’re changing the face of mining today.

Autonomous haulage trucks

An army of titanic trucks hauling iron ore around site: just a typical day in Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine, Pilbara, Western Australia. What’s different today, however, is that approximately 25% of its vehicles are fully autonomous, working without a single person on board.

Fitted with the company’s own wireless Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) and using high-precision GPS plus radar and laser sensors, they can independently navigate haul roads, people and other vehicles – overseen only by an operator in a control room. They can even alert staff and provide diagnostics when things go wrong.

Autonomous trucks such as these offer significant advantages:

[They] have proven to be roughly 15 per cent cheaper to run than vehicles with humans behind the wheel – a significant saving since haulage is by far a mine’s largest operational cost.

Rob Atkinson, productivity lead, Rio Tinto (via Technology Review)

Unlike human operators, they don’t need to stop for lunch breaks or shift changes, and this boosts efficiency. And because they‘re predictable, wear and tear is minimised and downtime is reduced. In addition, many injuries and accidents are also avoided as a result of fewer humans working on hazardous sites.

Unmanned aerial vehicles

Mines around the world are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to help them gather information about their sites. At some of BHP Billiton’s mines in Queensland, Australia, for example, they’re taking to the skies to confirm clearance before blasts, monitor traffic, road conditions and hazards, and to provide real-time aerial footage and 3D maps.

Queen’s Mining Systems Laboratory (US) and Örebro University, Sweden, are even looking to take drones underground. Their MapKey auto-rotating cavity scanner prototype is able to traverse dusty, restricted cavities and map the environment using 3D laser scanner technology.

With drones, we now gather more information about our sites than ever before. We can more quickly and accurately measure our stockpiles, review compliance to design against mine plans and understand where we need to make changes to improve safety or boost productivity.

Frans Knox, head of production for mining, BHP (via Mining Technology)

When developed, underground drones would be able to access previously unreachable and dangerous locations, advancing mine monitoring and safety beneath the surface.

Driverless locomotives

Copyright © 2018 Rio Tinto

Mines have relied on locomotive power for decades to help them haul material in and out of sites. However, as a result Rio Tinto’s €800 million AutoHaul project, the very first fully autonomous heavy-haul railway is due to be up and running in Pilbara, Australia, in late 2018.

While semi-autonomous trains have been traversing the tracks for a few years now, this new breed of driverless locomotive is equipped with complex on-board computer systems linked to 4G networks. This enables them to drive and stop independently, track signals, schedule with other trains, and unload and upload automatically.

Gains from AutoHaul already being realised include reduced variability and increased speed across the network, helping to reduce average cycle times.

Chris Salisbury, chief executive, Rio Tinto Iron Ore

On a trip that normally takes 40 hours, you can gain back two hours of lost run time usually incurred during shift changes and restarting.

These driverless locomotives are also improving mine rail safety thanks to various detection systems, which act predictably at crossings, follow the speed restrictions and issue obstacle alerts.

Robotic rock-drilling rigs

As well as transforming mining haulage and logistics, automation is now revolutionising the extraction process.

In late 2017 Atlas Copco won a contract to convert 18 of BHP Billiton’s blast hole Pit Viper 271 rig drills to autonomous operation, after the company had successfully trailed them for two years at their Yandi mine in Australia.

Able to bore into the earth at depths of 14 metres in search of iron ore, these drills are equipped with Atlas’s ground-breaking automated drilling system (ADS) technology.

Using GPS, obstacle detection and advanced auto drilling, the drills can move and dig independently, overseen from a remote off-site location. They can also monitor ground conditions and provide feedback.

Atlas aren’t the only ones making and using automated drills. Companies such as Rio Tinto, Sandvik, Komatsu and Caterpillar also have similar tech. What’s the impact on the industry? Improved accuracy, efficiency and safety.

The blast hole drill is one of the first operational steps in that value chain. Therefore, automating that process and getting rid of the element of human free will and replacing it with predictability adds a lot of value.

Tyler Berens, product line manager – automation, Atlas Copco (via Mining Technology)

Not only can the Pit Viper 271 drill with pinpoint precision, it can also work 11.5 hours of a 12-hour shift, compared with 8.5 for humans. Plus one operator can work three drills remotely at once.

Robotic assistants

Under the Mining ROX project, engineers at the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg, led by Professor Bernhard Jung, have been working to develop a teleoperated robotic mining assistant.

Meet Julius.

A four-wheel-drive electric platform, equipped with sensors and a Universal Robots UR5 robotic arm and gripper, Julius can act as an assistant during underground mine-surveying tasks. As well as carrying the heavy equipment, Julius can also help collect sensory data to analyse the quality of samples, using the handheld measurement devices.

Julius is good news for miners as he can help reduce the ergonomic strain caused by carrying equipment and holding scanning devices. He can also improve the quality of readings as he can stay completely still. As an added bonus he can also be sent into dangerous environments ahead of or instead of humans, boosting safety.

Jung envisages that these type of robots will eventually eliminate the need to send humans underground completely:

Mines can be hostile environments for human workers, but robots can go to places that are too dangerous for humans. They are a promising option, particularly for mines in remote areas where no skilled workforce is available. The deep mines of the future will be very hot places and ventilation and cooling systems will be economically prohibitive. In fact, a long-term vision in the mining research community is the fully automated ‘man-less mine’.

Professor Dr Bernhard Jung (via Robotiq)

These are just some of the ways in which robots are changing mining for the better. As you read this, many new technologies are being developed and trialled around the world that are set to boost the industry’s capabilities further in terms of efficiency, accuracy, site safety and job satisfaction.

In the mines of the future, robots will not just be working alongside humans – they’ll be running them, delivering the raw materials we need in ever tougher conditions and in ways far beyond human capabilities.

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