Robotic mines of the future are here
Automatons are making mining safer, more efficient than ever Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 8, 2020
Last updated 6/8/2023 at 12:08pm
Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology
Minerbots unite! With an arsenal of lasers and explosives able to reduce mineral-rich bedrock to rubble before morphing into trucks, loaders and other heavy equipment to deliver ore to processing plants that extract the sought-after metals, the Transformers of movie fame would make great miners!
While today's mines do not currently employ Optimus Prime-like automatons to produce the metals the world needs and wants, they have developed non-transforming robots on a grandiose scale.
In fact, autonomous vehicles are one of the main technologies global mining companies are developing in their efforts to make their digital mines of the 21st century more sustainable, efficient and safer than ever before.
These remote and self-operated machines range from handheld drones doing jobs unsafe or impractical for their human counterparts to the largest robot on planet earth shouldering more than 30,000 tons of iron ore.
Geoffrey Ejzenberg, chief client officer and co-CEO Behault, a mining haulage and technology company based in Belgium, believes self-operated heavy equipment will make mining more precise while attracting tech savvy young people to the sector.
"Automation is the future of mining for all the best reasons, including motivating the next generations to be miners," he said. "The mine of the future will be a whole new thing. One where we will move less dirt, get to the valuables more quickly, and retrieve those at the lowest cost per ton of ore produced."
Working on the cutting edge of self-driving heavy vehicle technology, global miner Rio Tinto operates the largest fleet of autonomous trucks in the world.
This endeavor into autonomous mining began with one simple question, "What new ideas can we bring to mining to make it safer, more productive or more sustainable?"
While the query is concise, the answers span the gamut of technology and innovation. Autonomous vehicles to haul ore at mine sites and deliver metals to markets, however, were an obvious early choice for the global miner's "mine of the future," a 2008 initiative to identify advanced ways of discovering, extracting and processing minerals
In many ways, mines such as Rio Tinto's Pilbara iron operations in Western Australia are the ideal place to develop and implement remote operated and self-driving vehicles. This is because the ore hauling trucks and other heavy equipment carry out repetitive tasks in a controlled environment.
"Autonomous haul trucks are operated by a supervisory system and a central controller, rather than a driver," Rio Tinto explains. "They use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections and to know actual locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles at all times."
The fleet of roughly 140 autonomous haul trucks the global miner has at Pilbara can travel at maximum efficiency. When coupled with the fact that these automatons do not get fatigued or need bathroom breaks, taking the operator out of the cab has improved efficiency at the iron mines.
Rio Tinto said the autonomous fleet at "Pilbara operations is delivering significant safety benefits as well as enhancing productivity and reducing costs."
Global mining companies, however, are thinking much bigger than having enormous unmanned haul trucks delivering ore to a plant for recovering the valuable metals.
How much bigger than a 250-ton "Tonka truck" can you get? For Rio Tinto, the answer are trains with 100 times the capacity.
Earth's largest robot
In mid-2019, the global mining company introduced AutoHaul, the world's first automated heavy-haul long distance rail network.
With three self-driving locomotives pulling more than 200 ore cars, each of the company's 1.5-mile-long AutoHaul trains can deliver around 31,000 tons of iron concentrates from any of 16 Australian mines to ports on the countries northwest coast.
Once set in motion by a remote train controller in Perth, Australia, computers on the train and at the operations center take over as "train engineer," making all the decisions.
"The network of computers makes sure the train keeps to the speed limit, makes sure it doesn't run into other trains or other trains don't run into it, makes sure there's nothing obstructing the level crossings (intersections with other surface transportation)," said Lido Costa, principal engineer on the AutoHaul project.
This makes AutoHaul the largest robot on Earth.
Western Australia Minister for Mines and Petroleum Bill Johnston said this avant-garde technology on such a massive scale highlights the innovation and technology being developed by Western Australia's mining sector.
"AutoHaul has brought the rail freight industry in this country into the 21st century and is rightfully the subject of global interest," said Johnston. "I'd also like to mention that the development of the world's biggest robot is such a success because of the contribution from Western Australia's skilled engineers and innovative workers."
For Rio Tinto, A$940-million AutoHaul was not about building the world's biggest robot. Instead, this rail network was built to more efficiently and safely deliver Western Australia iron to world markets.
Robotic mine of the future
When it comes to a mine where automatons blast, dig and deliver metal-rich ore, this futuristic vision for mining is a present-day reality in Africa.
Earlier this year, Australia-based Resolute Mining began ramping up operations at its Syama project in Mali, the world's first fully automated underground gold mine.
While Rio Tinto and other mining companies around the world are phasing in new autonomous and remote operated equipment to their fleet, Syama is the first time a company has had the opportunity to develop a mine specifically for a completely automated system.
"We have been developing what is going to be one of the world's most sophisticated underground mines, which we believe will operate for decades to come," Resolute Mining CEO John Welborn said during an August presentation at the Diggers & Dealers 2019 mining forum in Australia.
From the rigs that drill holes to blast the bedrock deep underground, to the loader that scoop up the material, to the trucks that wend their way through underground tunnels to deliver the gold-rich ore to the processing facility on the surface, every piece of mining equipment at Syama is fully autonomous.
One of the really cool aspects of this robotic operation is the mine plan is uploaded into "OptiMine," technology developed by Sandvik, a global leader in mining technology and the supplier of the autonomous equipment at Syama.
This analytics and process optimization suite keeps the autonomous fleet operating efficiently and safely by automatically making the adjustments needed to stay with the mine plan.
"The digitalization and automation of the mine means that in real time we can understand where every kilogram of ore is moving," said Welborn.
"That gives you a level of control that has not previously been possible in any mine," he added.
It also allows the robominers to diligently do the tedious and dangerous work, while their human counterparts monitor the machines from a futuristic control room on the surface.
"I like to think it looks a bit like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise – that is where the entire operation is controlled," Welborn said.
And, while the control room is currently on-site, Syama's autonomous miners could be monitored by their human counterparts from anywhere on Earth with fast internet and enough bandwidth.
"We can build control centers anywhere in the world where you have fiber optic cable," the Resolute Mining CEO said.
The next generation of mines will likely have more robots doing more of the onsite work while the humans assist their automaton mining counterparts from control rooms in Perth and other mining hubs around the globe.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on July 23, 2020 to accurately state that Geoffrey Ejzenberg is the chief client officer and co-CEO Behault. The previous version misstated the company name.