The mining industry is in the transition towards automation. There are two types of automated mining-process and software automation, and the application of robotic technology to mining vehicles and equipment.
Mining Equipment Automation
Addressing concerns about how to improve productivity and safety in the mine site, some mine companies are turning to equipment automation consisting of robotic hardware and software technologies that convert vehicles or equipment into autonomous mining units.
Mine equipment automation comes in four different forms: remote control, teleoperation, driver assist, and full automation.
Remote control mining equipment refers to the use of handheld remote controls to operate mining vehicles like excavators or bulldozers. This technology allows operators to control these machines from a safe distance, typically within line-of-sight. While it offers increased safety in hazardous mining environments, there are some trade-offs, such as reduced visibility and a different feel for the equipment, which can lead to decreased productivity compared to traditional manual operation.
Teleoperated Mining Equipment
Teleoperated mining equipment refers to mining vehicles that are controlled by an operator from a remote location, typically using a combination of cameras, sensors, and specialised software. This technology enables operators to control mining machinery from a safe and often more comfortable environment, reducing the need for physical presence at the mining site.
Driver assist systems in mining equipment are designed to automate specific tasks and enhance safety by assisting operators in avoiding collisions and navigating complex mining environments. These systems strike a balance between automation and human control, allowing for increased efficiency and reduced risk while still requiring operator intervention for critical decision-making.
“Full automation” in the context of mining refers to the highest level of autonomous control of one or more mining vehicles, where robotic components manage all critical vehicle functions without the need for operator intervention. This level of automation includes the control of various aspects of the vehicle’s operation, such as ignition, steering, transmission, acceleration, braking, and implement control.
Examples of Autonomous Mining Equipment
Mine of the Future
Rio Tinto Group’s “Mine of the Future” initiative, launched in 2008, represents a pioneering effort in the mining industry to embrace automation and technology for more efficient and sustainable mining operations. Here are some key points about this initiative:
1. Autonomous Mining Equipment: One of the central elements of the “Mine of the Future” initiative is the deployment of autonomous mining equipment in the Pilbara region of Australia. These autonomous vehicles include haul trucks and blast hole drill rigs.
2. Control Center in Perth: Rio Tinto operates these autonomous mining vehicles from a centralised control centre located in Perth, Western Australia. This centre serves as the hub for monitoring and controlling the mining operations in the remote Pilbara region.
3. Remote Operation: With the help of advanced technology and communication systems, Rio Tinto employees in the control centre can remotely operate and manage the autonomous mining equipment. This approach reduces the need for on-site operators and enhances safety.
4. Efficiency and Productivity: The adoption of autonomous mining equipment is aimed at improving productivity and optimising vehicle utilisation. These machines can operate around the clock, resulting in increased efficiency and the ability to process larger quantities of ore.
5. Environmental Benefits: Autonomous mining equipment can contribute to reducing the environmental footprint of mining operations. They can be programmed to follow precise routes and operate with greater precision, reducing waste and emissions.
6. Milestone Achievements: As of June 2014, Rio Tinto’s autonomous mining fleet had reached a significant milestone, having hauled 200 million tonnes of material. This milestone underscores the success of their autonomous operations in terms of volume and efficiency.
7. Safety Considerations: While automation can enhance safety by reducing the risk of accidents related to human error, it also requires robust safety systems to handle unexpected situations and ensure the well-being of workers.
8. Technology Integration: The “Mine of the Future” initiative integrates various technologies, including autonomous vehicles, data analytics, and advanced communication systems, to create a more efficient and sustainable mining operation.
9. Industry Influence: Rio Tinto’s efforts in autonomous mining have had a significant influence on the mining industry, inspiring other companies to explore similar technologies and approaches to improve their operations.
In summary, mining equipment automation technologies provide a comprehensive set of benefits that include improved safety, increased productivity, reduced costs, and enhanced working conditions. They have become a vital tool for mining companies seeking to maintain operational efficiency and competitiveness in a challenging industry landscape.
Written by John Marshall