Lifting underground mining

When people imagine the automated or remote control mine they think of massive open cut operations, with unmanned trucks making their way across the site.

The machine, not the person, will be running the mine. It will become a matter of artificial intelligence mixed with remote operating centres controlling vehicles traversing all over the site without a human to be seen apart from in the workshops.

However many of the major leaps forward in automated mining and robotics are not happening on the surface, but underground.

The technology, although still in its infancy, is making major strides forward in lifting safety and productivity levels as it removes the operator from the rockface, and ensures measureable, consistent, and reliable machinery action.

The field has also now taken another important step following the holding of the world’s first global workshops for robotics and autonomous systems in underground mining.

Organised by Sheffield Robotics and STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory, with support euRobotics; the Science and Technology Facilities Council; and SPARC – The Partnership for Robotics in Europe, the event brought together 55 attendees from the mining, robotics, and autonomous sector for collaborative workshops aimed at solving the main challenges this new sector is facing.

According to the group, “After a morning of briefings and introductions to mining and robotics, delegates were split into working groups, to discuss the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing the mining industry, and to consider which of these challenges and opportunities could be addressed with robotics and autonomous systems.”

“Delegates were asked to consider what they had heard in the morning sessions and to bring their own experience and perspectives in considering the most significant of these critical challenges.

“The challenges were then ranked in order of perceived importance by the participants and the opportunities for automated systems to provide a solution.”

Unsurprisingly, delegates rated the issue of safety the main challenge for the industry and the space where automated and robotic systems are likely to have the most impact.

It address many risks faced in underground mining by removing them from the mine itself, allowing for teleremote or semi-automated operations, where a single operator can control a number of vehicles from a single location, addressing the issue of productivity and energy efficiency in operations.

An issue which is only likely to grow in prevalence as easy to access ore is depleted – that of accessing smaller and new deposits in remote locations and narrow vein mining – was voted the second most important issue which could addressed by robotised mining systems.

According to a Rio Tinto seminar in 2010, in 2009 underground operations accounted for 26 per cent of all copper production, however Rio forecast that by 2025 underground operations would account for 40 per cent of global copper production, growing as a percentage of operations as automation sees increased uptake.

Technology-wise, one of the major indicators of the greater importance being placed on underground mining has been the shift of previously open cut focused mining machinery manufacturers – such as Caterpillar and Komatsu, moving underground.

Caterpillar did this through its acquisition of Bucyrus, and a greater focus on new underground equipment; Komatsu through its partnership with GE Mining.

Underground mining contractor Pybar’s group business development manager David Noort explained it succinctly to Australian Mining, “If you want to get into the mining game, or strengthen your position in it, you have to get in to underground.”

Narrow vein mining has been touted by many as the future for mining, particularly in Africa, although it is unlikely to become a major component of the Australian hard rock mining industry in the near future. 

Speaking to contractors at a recent mining event, they told Australian Mining that as mines get deeper and more expensive and higher grades are harder to come by many miners will turn to narrow vein mining to cut costs and operate more efficiently as tunnels no longer have to be as large. 

Automation opens up the possibility of accessing these narrower veins without putting workers at risk, in turn lifting safety as it removes risk.

The skills shortage, an issue exacerbated by an aging workforce, was also in focus, in particular a younger workforce entering the sector and their wider use of technology that falls under the Internet of Everything umbrella.

University of Sheffield professor Tony Dodd, from the department of automatic control and systems engineering as well as Sheffield Robotics, explained “the aim of the day was to formulate a robotics and autonomous systems research strategy involving key stakeholders”.

According to Sheffield Robotics, the results from the event will be used to as the groundwork to build upon recent initiatives, such as SPARC, to construct a roadmap for the future of the industry as it struggles under the current downturn.

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