Rise of mining’s robots only just starting: webcast

Richard Roberts

‘The theoretical cost savings that are being talked about … are quite frankly astonishing’

Robotic ultra-class surface trucks, drill rigs, trains and now road trains have made Australia a global mining automation hub. But the industry is only scratching the surface of what’s to come, leaders at five innovative small technology firms have said on an Austmine webcast: Rise of the Machines.

“Enabling automation of haulage is just the first step towards reshaping how mining is conducted,” Universal Field Robots’ Kerry Doherty said on the call after talking about the company’s “game-changing” UFRhaulage collaboration with gold major, Gold Fields, in Western Australia.

“The ultimate goal with these sorts of projects is zero entry mining … [where] all mining on site would be either remote controlled or automated.

“The theoretical cost savings that are being talked about for zero injury mining when compared to how we’re doing it now are quite frankly astonishing.

“But the reality of zero entry is it has yet to be seen.

“There are many missing puzzle pieces to this zero-entry puzzle. We’re focused on creating the missing links today that will enable zero entry tomorrow.”

Others working on these missing links are fast-growing Newcastle-based design agency, Robotic Systems, which has been working with companies such as Orica on advanced automation and control systems, London-listed Tribe Tech, gamma neutron element analysis leader Real Time Instruments, and drone expert Robert Sutton’s Mirragin RAS Consulting.

Robotic Systems founder Adam Amos told InvestMETS.com in a recent interview the company was expanding rapidly on the back of surging demand from mining equipment manufacturers and product suppliers looking to automate machines and processes.

“[They] know they need to have tech in their product suite within the next couple of years or they won’t be in the sales conversation with the mine,” Amos said.

Sutton is a former Australian Army aviation engineer who worked with the national defence arm on its drone strategy and several key projects, including demonstrating drone swarming at scale.

“We’re passionate about drones because they can be used to increase capability, to reduce costs and crucially to save lives,” he said on the webcast.

Sutton agreed with viewers that a range of potential drone applications in mining was “almost endless” and generally much discussed. Drone use as mobile platforms for extending valuable high-bandwidth communications into areas with poor connectivity might be one of a number of applications not yet getting as much attention. But like other speakers on the call Sutton suggested a big picture for drone use in mining was only just taking shape.

“Ultimately, increased use of sensing platforms could enable a complete understanding of the mine production process – all the way from exploration through the orebody to tailings management, to allow yield and efficiency increases,” he said.

The webinar heard automation of underground loaders, as well as trucks and ancillary machines, extension of advanced, automated prompt gamma neutron activation analysis (PGNAA) from conveyors and pipelines down into mine blast-holes, and transfer of the world’s most advanced reverse circulation (RC) drill automation design features to other drills, were all on the product roadmaps of participating companies.

Coming, almost certainly, to a mine near you in the next few years, the Rise of the Machines broadcast heard.

But first for Tribe Tech is delivery of its first automated RC drill to Major Drilling arm, McKay Drilling, in Western Australia in the June quarter this year. Tribe, which is producing autonomous sampling systems in Perth and rigs in Belfast, Northern Ireland, also has a contract with mining major Anglo American to supply RC drills.

“We’re looking forward to this exciting next phase in the rise of this particular machine,” Tribe chief technology officer, Derek Loughlin said.

The veteran industry figure said while the world’s large exploration drilling sector had made good progress getting operators away from hazardous zones in the RC drilling process, “being a driller’s assistant in RC drilling is still probably the worst job in the modern drilling industry”.

“It’s noisy, dusty, in Australia it’s usually hot, and it’s always an inhospitable environment,” he said.

“Perfect for handing over to the machines.

“Many people said it couldn’t be done.

“The challenge for [Tribe was] to make sure that it could be done. However, achieving that level of automation meant discarding old ideas and the typical path of trying to introduce automation to existing drill rig designs.

“We’ve put over 150,000 engineering hours into designing a new drilling system, a drill rig and sampling system from the ground up, designed with the aim of removing people completely from drilling operations while the rig is drilling.

“It will require remote operation [and] it will require a maintenance crew.

“Achieving that level of automation requires dedicated power, dedicated sensors [and] dedicated circuits, and they’re not available on a standard drill rig because that drill rig was never designed for that level of automation.

“You can’t achieve full automation through a retrofit strategy. You’ve got to design for automation from the ground up.

“Our focus obviously at the moment is delivering the first machine.

“But we’re open to, and talking to, potential partners about [automating] production drills.”

Queensland-based Universal Field Robots (UFR) is retrofitting current machines in the case of its UFRhaulage collaboration with Gold Fields in WA, and other projects. But it’s probable future electric equipment will look a lot different to today’s diesel-powered units and success with current autonomy projects will only accelerate that journey.

“The first [Epiroc] MT65 we did was about eight-to-12 weeks to get it driving tele-remote,” Doherty said.

“The automation side was around six months to have it driving.

“And we’ve been testing on site for eight or nine months now and we’ve still got a fair bit more.

“As you start to get to the edge cases that’s where it starts to slow down … Getting to that final sort of 10% of development before we go live.

“We’ve hit that hump now and we’re excited to start expanding the fleets.

“By the end of this year UFR is going to commission a fleet of Epiroc MT65s with Gold Fields and that will allow automated haulage during shift change to be going this calendar year.

“Once this is done we’ll be looking to verify the business case and working with the site to improve the efficiency of the system.

“And the future sees the expansion of the systems to run in a separate decline through a whole shift.”

Real Time Instruments’ Bradley Roper said PGNAA sensors had already been mass-deployed to provide accurate and timely copper, iron, coal, nickel and other element measurements, enabling higher levels of process plant and system management. RTI had more than 1200 of its sensors in the field at sites around the world.

“These PGNAA systems can fit almost anywhere along your value chain,” Roper said.

“Wherever there’s material being conveyed on your mine site or in your process, or even being piped, we can measure it, from the ROM all the way through to the port.

“And this allows for a multitude of decisions.

“You can do bulk ore sorting, deciding whether your material is product or waste.

“Your plant can be optimised based on the composition of your material. You can dose correctly, add your flocculants correctly. Your stockpiles can be controlled and built to spec and then from there, you can load and deliver your material on spec, reducing your penalties.

“A lot of our orebodies [have] declining grades, and our production targets are increasing.

“We need to control our plants better [and] we need to mine more efficiently and sustainably.

“And we can’t do that relying on data that’s four hours old or 24 hours old. We need data in real time. And this can be done with PGNAA sensors.”

Roper said investigation of borehole sensing was ongoing.

“The biggest roadblock there has been the radiation source itself. As you can imagine, moving a source around can be quite difficult.

“With the intervention now of neutron generators, which is quite similar to x-ray tubes where we are electrically generating neutrons, as these have become pocket-sized, we can look at putting these down blast holes and doing analysis pre-blast.

“Currently RTI is developing that technology and we hope to get it out in the next … year or so.

“I definitely think it is something that we are going to be seeing in the future.”


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