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Insight on automation

July 8, 2015

Many of us share the same vision. We see fleets of drill rigs, loaders and trucks running unmanned, monitored from a remote location by just a few people. But how close are we to a fully automated mining industry? M&C talks to Brian Fox for an update.

What is Atlas Copco focusing on right now in terms of automated systems?

Brian Fox is Vice President, Marketing - Automation, within Atlas Copco’s Mining & Rock Excavation Business Area.

We use our Rig Control System (RCS) CAN-bus control system as our base platfor­m, so the first step is integrating RCS on machines that require advanced technology. From here, we can add automated functions such as drilling, leveling and rod changing along with wireless communications and data systems. We have teleremote control and semi-autonomous capability on many of our surface drills and underground loader­s, face drills and long-hole drill rigs. Our focus is now on autonomous operation of surface drills and multiple semi-autonomous LHDs which provide automated tram and dump with teleremote loading.

Automation is a high priority in our company and we feel like we are at the forefront of mining technology. The key for us is to move at a pace that we can support with reliable systems and competent people in the right locations.

Is it technically possible to automate all mining equipment?

Technically, yes. The question is to what level you need to automate. “Autonomous” means different things to different people. On a basic level, a drill is running autonomously if it can tram between holes on a closed pattern, level itself and drill a hole. But to truly run without human involvement, it must be able to work with changing bench conditions and know where people and other equipment may be. It must analyze the condition of the bit and change it automatically. It must sense the amount of dust and optimize the amount of water needed to control it.

As technical challenges become more complex, a decision must be made as to whether the benefits are worth the cost.

What drives automation in mining?

I see four primary drivers; safety, productivity, qualified labor and production costs.

With regard to safety, teleremote and autonomous operation ultimately move the operator away from potentially dangerous areas. When it comes to productivity, declining ore grades and increasing strip ratios require more material movement and mining new deposits in increasingly difficult locations. Autonomous operation will increase the utilization of machines and production will be more consistent, making planning much easier.

Finding qualified labor is a key concern today. As mining migrates toward remote locations, getting competent labor to operate mines is becoming increasingly difficult. Remote operation reduces the number of operators on site, which also results in fewer people to transport and house. Finding people that can work with data and networks should prove easier than finding traditional operators, as the new generation is exposed to and educated in new technology.

In terms of production costs, we see that mining costs have increased rapidly due to higher steel, fuel and labor costs. Smart machines will use less energy and have lower maintenance, repair and consumables costs, and fewer will be needed due to increased utilization.

But the big impact will come from executing processes as designed, for example, drilling holes in the planned location and using the information obtained from the machines such as rock hardness and mineralization as a means of optimizing fragmentation and ore routing. This will provide savings in downstream mining and processing costs.

Why hasn’t automation been developed faster in the mining industry?

First off, automated machines in a factory setting are designed to operate in a confined, controlled environment. In surfac­e or underground mining, you have many pieces and different types of equipment interacting with ever changing geological and environmental conditions.

Secondly, there hasn’t been an urgent demand from customers. Safety is one of the drivers, but mining companies have done a great job of developing strong safety cultures and have trained their people to assess and mitigate risks using traditional equipment and processes. The safety performance trend is positive, but we’re approaching the point where equipment must be automated to further improve. From a productivity standpoint, miners have been able to meet demand through more machines and manpower.

If advanced technology needed is available now, what’s holding it back?

The technology available today is impressive, but it has to be safe and reliable and must show a good return on investment. Anyone who has been in the industry awhile will remember the buzz created at MINExpo 1996 around autonomous haul truck testing. Yet here we are, over 15 years later, and while some autonomous trucks are in operation, it is not widespread. Why? I believe it is a combination of reliability of the technology paired with the difficulty of integrating the machine with the worksite network.

Also, holding things back is the challenge of justifying automation. Without long term test results to look at, it is tough to make the large financial commitment for automated machines and the necessary infrastructure and operating procedures to support them. However, many successful tests are underway and as a result I think we’ll see a rapid expansion of automation in mining in the next few years.

What are the three most important areas that mines should be addressing?

The three areas to focus on would be networks, data and training. To be ready once autonomy starts taking off, mines need to hire and develop people who understand wireless networks and data systems. Without the ability to transmit and utilize information from the machines, there will be little benefit. It is important to get a headstart in this area so that implementation is smooth when automated machines become available.

Productivity Automation Safety Mining Global