Miners slowly jumping on the automation band wagon

As Rio Tinto moves its 100 millionth tonne via automated trucks, it is becoming clear that automation is here to stay.

Former US-based military officer Tyler Berens spent a year travelling around the world to talk to, and listen to, miners speak about automation. Views on mine drill rig automation used to be as diverse as the cultures around the world.

But Berens now saw a consistent trend and vision – and a certainty about the role of automation in the industry’s future.

Automation used to be a bogey word to most miners when Atlas Copco first introduced its RCS computerised control system for drilling rigs in the late 1990s.

But miners are now embracing it. Berens said the fast rate of change has been evident even in the past 12 months.

“The customers know what they want from automation, which is good,” he said.

“They’ve obviously accepted the technology and they are ready to push forward and go autonomous where it makes sense to do so.

“I think it’s [automation technology] appealing to any stakeholder in the mining environment – whether that’s an operator, a safety officer, a mine manager, or even a mining investor.

"There are opportunities to eliminate risks normally associated with certain mining activities; there’s the prospect of better efficiencies and lower operating costs; and, on a broader scale, there’s the opportunity to build a greater quality of life for the workforce.

"So I don’t see the industry’s embrace of automation slowing down in the foreseeable future."

“In fact, I think peoples’ concept of automation is certainly maturing greatly. Just in the past year that I’ve been with the company I’ve seen it mature rapidly.”

Texas-based Berens is a project manager for blast hole technology with Atlas Copco and said it was an exciting time to be involved with the company and the mining industry.

Atlas Copco introduced its Rig Control System in 1998, and has since developed computerised and increasingly automated rock drilling.

 “Automation I think is a big buzzword out there in the industry – from trucks to dozers to blast hole drills – everybody has got that word in their vocabulary now,” Berens said.

Atlas Copco’s RCS increases drilling rates and economy, and also delivers rapid fault detection and lower maintenance costs, higher drill rig availability and utilisation.

The RCS4, which is fourth generation RCS automation, comes with advanced tools to aid mine planning and managing the drilling process, including wireless online data transmission between rig and site office.

This is done through PC-software that enables RCS-equipped rigs to communicate with a site office while referring to the same constantly updated plans.

“We use the international standard IRDS (information resource dictionary system) for all of our log files so that it should be compatible market wide, or industry wide,” Berens said.

He said the company’s modularised approach means customers have the core control system on the machine. Customers can add more options as their needs grow, such as high precision GPS for getting logs off the machine.

“The customer can start with the basic system and then just add on over time- it’s not a big deal,” Berens said.

“When we went from full hydraulic to electric over hydraulic [control] that mainly stayed inside the cab in terms of who it affected. Now as we go to this more computerised control system we can affect ore stakeholders throughout the mine in a positive way.”

Berens said high precision GPS benefits surveyors and engineers as they no longer need to go out and flag each hole. This is because of better precision on the blast side.

“We’re putting the hole exactly where they designed it, and then we’ve got a log coming back saying if they did or didn’t put it right over that hole so that they can make the appropriate correction when they’re loading the hole.”

Berens said the company sends out data in a standard XML form. He said the standardisation was an Atlas Copco theme for mining’s new high-tech era.

“One of the good things about our RCS from our perspective is that RCS is just RCS. So whatever Pit Viper you walk onto, you know it’s going to be identical for the operator, in terms of the controls and in the hardware department.”

There is only one difference in the PV275. It has an auto-rod counting feature. The operator can add or remove rods and it calculates in RCS to provide the right interlocks.

This prevents them from tramming off while there is still steel in the ground.

“The hardware and controls are basically laid out the same depending on the model,” he said.

The Australian market for Atlas Copco surface drills was exploding, but the company had been seeing strong take-up in other parts of the world too.

“North America…it’s taken off in South Africa as well as down in Chile,” Berens said.

Berens believes more users will mean more feedback, which the company can use to fine tune existing product lines and generate new product lines.

He said RCS is modularised, and a plug and play application. This means they can keep building new things into it as people ask for them.

“Basically, we integrate data capture, reporting, analysis and management from the drill all the way through the mine office to the new remote control centres in the industry.

“RCS is a technology that affects a lot of mine stakeholders, not just the operator.”

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