Rio Tinto's latest tunnel boring system has begun trials at its Northparkes underground mine.
This new machine is the first of three new underground excavation systems that have been developed by Rio as part of its wider Mine of the Future program to improve both the construction and operation of its underground mines.
Since 2010 the miner has been trialling underground excavation systems, using Aker Wirth's tunnel borer system.
The system is 64 m long, has a maximum boring diameter of six metres and has minimum tunnel dimensions of five metres by five metres, and has been designed and developed in a partnership between Rio and Aker Wirth over the last four years.
This latest system was officially launched earlier this year at an underground ceremony attended by both Rio's head of innovation, John McGagh, and its group executive for technology and innovation, Preston Chiaro.
McGagh stated that "this investment offers the possibility for a significant improvement over conventional drill and blast practices; depending on rock and operating conditions, this system should provide the capability to excavate at more than double the rate of conventional methods.
“This is about The Mine of the Future program going underground, as we promised we would at the start of 2010,” McGagh said.
“This system incorporates continuous mechanical rock excavation that will not damage new tunnel walls, while still providing the ability to mechanically install ground support in parallel with tunnel advance.
Northparkes managing director Stefanie Loder added that "it provides an opportunity to introduce fundamentally safer processes into the underground mining industry.
"Safety is a value and is integral to everything we do, this technology will not just help to make our operations more efficient, they'll also be safer," she added.
The trial phase at Northparkes will run until around July.
Rob Cunningham, Northparkes tunnel boring manager, said "the next steps following the completion of the trial will be a comprehensive critique of the performance of the tunnel boring system".
The system is controlled on board by a team of 12 people, and is supported by three underground haul trucks.
It is expected to excavate around 1.4 kilometres of tunnels during its trial period