Automated machinery has become commonplace in our surface mines, utilising readily available systems and technologies, such as GPS for location guidance. Our underground mines are at least a generation behind, faced by limiting factors that the harsh subterranean environment delivers for mobile fleet and workers.
Development drill concept
Major underground OEMs have released a series of increasingly smart machines in the last couple of years, including a range of concepts from Sandvik, which point toward what front-line machines could look like within the next decade.
The latest release was dubbed “Amelia” in the run-up to its online announcement earlier this week. With a fantastic video release (seen below) highlighting the features of the newly conceptualised machine. So, what sets these latest releases apart from the current range of underground fleet and what can we learn and expect from these machines in to the future.
Sandvik’s latest ”Amelia” release is a futuristic look at what the underground drills may look like in a newly automated underground environment.
The cabin and operation controls have been removed from the machine, instead, replaced by a larger battery and a water holding receptacle. This will allow the development drill to travel around the mine and bore a cut without having to utilise backs mounted services (electricity & water).
Whether this can be achieved without additional external inputs remains to be repeatedly proven, however, this futuristic concept is a glimpse into the future of what mining machines can and possibly will look like.
Furthermore, the removal of the cabin entirely alludes to fully automated dispatch, tramming, and operation. This will likely be achievable initially in mines that can adapt and manage the risks associated with automated machines working alongside a traditional fleet of human-operated machines.
This should be achievable by utilising level 9 collision avoidance and proximity detection systems, which are currently being developed by Sandvik and their Newtrax technologies subsidiary.
Automation of bolt loading
Automation of the other major drilling component of horizontal underground development, the scaling and bolt/mesh cycle, will be harder still. Spatial sensors must work in tandem with robotics to deliver a fully automated and repeatable outcome without human interface or inspection.
Epiroc has delivered an additional part of an automated puzzle through the delivery of the Boltec Auto Reload (ABR) system.
This system utilises a rig-mounted bolt magazine that stacks and loads the feed magazine with up to 52 bolts and delivers pumpable resin from an onboard hopper.
Allowing for repeatability and improved quality control of ground support install but more importantly removing operators from the line of fire, whilst interacting with the rig or the exposure to poor, unsupported ground.
It may be worth considering that a fully automated underground mine, with little to no human interaction, may also reduce its ground support requirements due to reduced risk to human life. However, this variable feels hypothetical now and would require case-by-case assessment across different operational factors.
The future of underground mining may be a fully automated cycle of specialist machines, completed with little to no human interaction. However, this feels like it is a long way off!
Incremental steps and showcases of what the future could look like though allow manufacturers to not only showcase their abilities but also inspire deep thinking within mining professionals.
The major OEMs continue to take steps toward the automated underground mine of the future across all machine classes.
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