When it comes to innovation in the mining industry, it's very hard to go past a revolutionary new development in drilling, which is why Columbus Group Design have won the 2014 Prospect Award for Innovation.
Their 3 dimensional 'Down-the-hole' drilling system brings a number of new tricks to the driller's kitbag, and will no doubt become a vital ingredient in Australian exploration, mine development, and production.
Rather than conventional boring or hammer drilling which uses a drill bit, 3D 'Down-the-hole' drilling uses a high pressure water cutting tool, digitally controlled to direct jets of water vertically and horizontally.
With a series of jets in the cutting head that can be switched on or off by an on-board connection to 'Internet of Everything' controls, it is possible to drill out three-dimensional cavities of different shapes, or hole profiles, including spherical for increased strength rock-bolting, or star shaped for greater explosive fracturing control in blasting operations.
One of the main benefits of high pressure water drilling is the absence of dust and less hydraulic hammer impacts on drilling equipment.
In the expanding world of the 'internet of everything', the 3D down-the-hole technology moves the drilling management, water valving and local sensing to the scene of the action for precision and flexibility, together with a high degree of redundancy for reliability and extended uninterrupted drilling performance.
There are sensors on the drilling head tool to ensure that the 3D profile being cut is being shaped to the pre-set required profile.
To achieve the 'captured ball-like' cavity feature within a rock formation, as well as all 12 sets of three cutting jets being used to define the 3D shape, a shaking motion of up to 30 degrees of rotation is also introduced with the dual hole packer set, so wiping the surface being cut away to form the 'ball' has a total 360 degree of impacting cutting action and cavitation.
The control of the 21 jet cutting head also allows the hole reference and direction to be assisted in changing, so the guidance reference hole can actually be driven around corners, if required.
Columbus Group Design has said that while it could be possible to also add gold assaying sensors to the drilling head, it is also possible to use above the ground assaying systems, and link the results with particular cutting details from the accelerometer data, the knowledge of which jet sets are in use, and the transport time to extract the material from the drilling head operations to the assaying point.
With a degree of benchmarking and local knowledge of typical gold seam patterns in 3D, then the ability of the 3D 'down-the-hole' high pressure water drilling to 'chase' and extract gold from even small and thin seams may become a commercially viable, particularly in an automated environment, using particular aspects of the in-house optimising software.
The new technology could also be used to enhance the application of horizontal mining techniques
With more tunnelling being used to create rail commuter services in cities, the application of horizontal mining technologies can allow more efficient tunnel profiles.
The down-the-hole cutting head, under software control, can shape the stope as wanted.
The slurry coming from the cutting action can be easily pumped away without the need for conveyors.
Further, the slurry can be combined on site with cements and fibre reinforcing to complete the permanent structures.