Features

Automation is the key to underground mining

As underground mining expands in magnitude, complexity and depth, keeping workers
from harm is increasingly challenging. For Orica, automation is the key. 

The development face is one of the most hazardous work areas in an underground mine, particularly where seismicity and other geotechnical hazards exist.

While many tasks have benefited from advances in mechanisation in modern times, the reality of underground mining is that many jobs still require workers to spend long periods directly exposed to hazards at the face.

In 2019, Orica and Epiroc partnered to co-develop Avatel, the world’s first fully mechanised development charging unit using wireless initiation technology.

Built on Epiroc’s M2 carrier platform, Avatel takes the proven reliability of Epiroc’s boomer jumbos and digital capability of their rig control system (RCS 5) and integrates an automated explosives delivery system comprising new and existing Orica technology.

“Avatel is truly the first meaningful shift in the mechanisation and automation of explosives-handling and use in modern times,” Orica senior manager – underground IPT, new technology commercialisation Ben Taylor told Australian Mining.

A key enabler for Avatel is WebGen 200 Dev, the world’s first completely wireless blast-initiation system that allows wireless primers to receive an initiation signal from hundreds of metres away through rock, water and air.

WebGen eliminates the need for manual connections and tie-ins, a requirement of traditional initiating systems that is complicated and potentially risky to mechanise.

Avatel also takes advantage of Orica’s HandliLoader bulk emulsion system to deliver a range of explosive energies into the blasthole, controlled by the onboard LOADPlus system to ensure repeatable delivery of Orica’s Subtek bulk emulsion.

The energy control available with Avatel is, according to Orica, superior to any current development charging system.

The last year has seen Avatel reach some important milestones, including the transition to live blasting at Agnico Eagle’s underground mine in Kittilä, Finland, in November 2022.

“This is a critical stage as it has allowed us to embed Avatel into the production environment, better validate how the solution fits within the mining cycle and take those learnings onboard for further improvements to the system,” Taylor said.

“We’ve had some promising outcomes during live operations. One of the obvious challenges for a machine like Avatel is being able to replicate the tasks normally completed by a human with what’s effectively a 14m robot.

“For example, clearing debris away from the toe of the face to access lifter holes normally requires a person to dig at the face with a pelican pick to expose lifter tubes. We’re pleased with how effectively we can clear faces with the booms to access lifters and then clear the holes with the onboard compressed air system.

“It’s particularly impressive when we have as-drilled data available to use for navigation through Epiroc’s RCS 5, allowing the operator to position over a known collar position quickly and precisely.”

Avatel represents a significant step forward in safety for underground charge crews.

“When we consider the exposure time across the various steps of the development cycle, charge crews spend significantly more time at the at the face than any other worker,” Taylor said.

“We’re now in a position where our customers can significantly improve their risk profile, allowing them to shift away from expensive and time-consuming controls that are necessary to conduct work safely with traditional methods, and focus on spending more productive time at the face.

“A good example is temporary ground support as a method of controlling the risk of rockfall while personnel are working directly in the line of fire.

“It’s a common inclusion on many Australian mining operations over the past decade and has undoubtedly had a positive impact on a reduced frequency of significant injuries from rockfall, but it’s not the silver bullet of controls as critical risks such as working in heat, working at height, manual handling and equipment interaction remained unaddressed.

“Importantly, it’s not always effective. We still see incidents occurring where personnel are exposed to or injured by rockfalls while working at the face, so we can do better.”

There is now a strong push to transition to a nil-on-foot work environment where personnel are removed from the line of fire and ultimately away from the work area completely through remote operations.

The intent of Avatel is not necessarily to replicate the speed of a charge crew in good operating conditions. Rather, it’s designed to allow work to continue in areas where safe access isn’t possible at all.

“In that sense cycle time isn’t the primary driver for Avatel, but we can’t be too far off the mark,” Taylor said.

“We made the decision very early on to replicate the twin boom jumbo format, knowing that simultaneously loading with both booms would minimise idle process time while at the face.”

Test results to date have demonstrated that it’s possible to load a standard face of close to 70 holes in around just over two hours.

“When you consider the number of tasks happening in that time – clearing the face, unlocking holes, assembling primers, loading every blasthole and tramming away with the face ready to blast – without the operator ever leaving the cabin, the technology is quite revolutionary,” Taylor said.

“Integrating with Epiroc’s boomer jumbo carrier also means we’re building on a platform with proven performance and reliability around the globe.

“Our vision is to transform how drill-and-blast is used to unlock mining value, utilising digital and automated technologies to create safer and more productive blast outcomes for customers.”

Automation and digitalisation are a recurring theme in Australian mining that supports this trend, and solutions like Avatel are fundamental building blocks of Orica’s future automation vision in surface and underground mining applications.

This year will see the conclusion of field trials with Orica’s prototype unit and the transition toward commercialisation.

The first complete Avatel service will commence at Newcrest’s Cadia Valley Operations in New South Wales early in the year.

“Newcrest has long been an early adopter of new technologies and became a foundation partner of the Avatel program in the very early stages of the project,” Taylor said. “Industry partners are critical to the adoption of any new technology, particularly disruptive innovations like Avatel.

“We’re extremely proud to be working with Newcrest, being the first in the world to fully embed Avatel into their operations.

“In parallel, we will continue the Avatel build program to support rollout around the globe. Construction of the third machine is underway, destined for Canada toward the end 2023.

“With almost 150 years of experience and expertise in innovation, research and technology development, Orica remains committed to unlocking value for our customers along every stage of the value chain.”

This feature appeared in the March 2023 issue of Australian Mining.

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