Automation underground is the wholly grail, not only in improved safety but also increasing production rates. This can be seen extensively in the current load and haul part of the mining cycle, with the use of automated tele-remote systems. These systems allow multiple machines to be controlled by one operator, automating the mundane tramming part of the in-level loading cycle.
This has driven rapid efficiencies over the past couple of years and allowed for improved mining rates but also allowing operators to remove themselves from the mining environment. This is an impressive first win for underground projects, however who else is driving automation at the underground face and what parts of the cycle are they looking to streamline?
Enaex UG-iTruck : robotic & fully autonomous explosives loading
Enaex this month announced that it has developed a fully autonomous explosives loading system for underground development charging. The very interesting part of the puzzle that Enaex have seemingly overcome, is the integration of LiDAR scan data at the face, so that the robotic loading arm can understand the complex task at hand.
This solution generates a great leap in safety, eliminating the risks due to exposure in the loading process, mainly in tunnel development, where our clients present great challenges still unresolved.Source: https://www.enaex.com
It can measure the mine tunnel profile, observe each drilled hole and clean them as necessary. This is all then followed up with automated loading of wireless detonators and charging with a Enaex developed explosive emulsion for improved blasting performance.
The cutting-edge machine will continue to be trialled over the remains of 2022 and once commercialised it should improve safety, quality, and cycle time for development advance.
MacLean Engineering: robotic and autonomous ground support install
Announced as a teaser at the tail end of 2021, Canadian based MacLean Engineering showcased a video of a robotic rig for ground support install!
This would be right up there, conceptually, as one of the harder parts of the cycle to automate. The visual inspection and human decision-making required for rock bolt install would need very advanced software to standardise this process. Whilst it may be on the agenda for existing bolting centric rigs from Europe, such as the Epiroc Boltec series, this highlights the continuing technological advance of the Canadian mining sector.
The video showcased short snippets of the rig working and it will be one to watch, as if this technology could be integrated into front line jumbo type drill rigs, it could see near complete automation of drilling, scaling, and ground support install. Whilst this may be a generation away, I am sure It is being worked on deep in the Northern Hemisphere!
Epiroc/Orica Avatel: semi-automated explosives loading
Already featured on this website, the Epiroc and Orica collaboration delivers a mobile rig for semi-autonomous, rapid development cut charging. This not only allows the removal of, possibly multiple, operators from underground face but also assists heavily in the workflow required. The wireless detonators allow for the operator to utilise two booms for cleaning, det placement and charging, which reduced manual handling.
This automates the process in a similar way that a twin boom jumbo can be drilling with one boom, whilst moving to and triggering the drilling action for the next required collar. This will help improve cycle times and also reduce human error/fatigue factors that can play into the quality of any advancing development.
Newcrest’s Cadia operations will take delivery of the first unit in Australia in the second half of 2022. Whilst it may take multiple years for a new system like this to become industry standard, it will be interesting to hear how it operates in the Australia rapid development setting, after initial European testing.
Load and Haul automation is now being delivered across the globe to the most advanced underground operations. Systems like the title image, Boston Dynamics’ Spot can already allow automation of underground inspections, yet more advanced robot systems for the front line mining activity are just around the corner.
Automation of other parts of the underground mining cycle may be a generation away. Integration of multiple technologies, such as LiDAR sensors for visualising the working front and then robotics for delivering the finalised product placement is now being announced from various working centres across the globe.
With advancing connectivity, software and hardware integration and new push toward Mining 4.0 at projects, it will only be a matter of time before automation starts to deliver improved quality at an underground mine near you.
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