Automated draglines move a step closer to reality

Dragline automation has received a $600,000 boost, with a technology company and the University of Queensland working together to develop a system which could save mining operations millions.

Dragline automation has received a $600,000 boost, with a technology company and the University of Queensland working together to develop a system which could save mining operations millions.

MineWare is collaborating with CRCMining and the University of Queensland on an 18-month ACARP (the Australian black coal industry's research program) project set to advance dragline operations one step closer to automation.

Funded by an ACARP grant of more than $600,000—as well as in-kind support from MineWare and CRCMining — the joint R&D project focuses on developing and implementing a new dig sequencing technology that aims to identify the best sequence of operations and movements for a dragline to excavate in the most efficient and productive way.

The technology will give operators instantaneous position, digging and dumping guidance, supporting them to make critical decisions around the sequencing of excavation.

MineWare CEO and project co-leader Andrew Jessett said that dragline operations will benefit from a significant improvement in productivity.

“On draglines around the world, we continue to see inconsistencies in operator sequences and techniques, which can result in variations in productivity rates in excess of 10 per cent,” he said.

“By giving dragline operators accurate, instant guidance, we want to close the gap on these variations and improve productivity as a direct result.”

Jessett believes the time is right for industry to revisit the historic problem of dragline automation, capitalising on the readiness of new and emerging technologies.

He said the project represents a logical stepping stone towards the realisation of an automated dragline system—one that can bring an immediate benefit to the open cut mining industry globally.

“This project builds upon more than 20 years of initiatives aimed at improving the performance of draglines,” he said.

“While the dream of an automated dragline system is still many, many years away, we’re ready to take another big step, harnessing new digital terrain mapping technology and our Pegasys Dragline Production Monitor to semi-automate key dragline dumping and positioning functions.”

Attracting widespread support and interest from mining industry leaders and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the project builds upon the work of several previous ACARP projects and research undertaken by CRCMining on tactical mission planning for mining excavators.

ACARP’s Open Cut Committee has appointed senior representatives from four of the world’s largest coal mining companies as ‘Industry Monitors’ for the project.

While working more productively and saving time and money is not a new direction for the mining industry, R&D into technologies which will speed up the automation process has ramped up of late.

Jessett said the new technology could save the industry millions of dollars.

"Consistency is very important, that range of variability between operators can be anywhere up to 10 or 15 per cent and in dollar terms that's very significant," he said.

"When a dragline's cost is around $30,000 an hour, when you've got 10 or 15 per cent variation in that hour by hour, that adds [up] to being a lot of money over a period of time."

However, not all are supportive of the move to robotise mining operations.

The CFMEU said it will be watching the development of automated draglines closely to ensure it doesn’t impact on jobs, ABC reported.

"Companies at the moment are obviously reducing their staff and I'd hate to think that if there's an introduction of a new process or that's being done for other means to actually reduce the amount of people that carry out a task," CFMEU district president Stephen Smyth said.

"Obviously we're always mindful that if suddenly something is introduced and it's all about reducing a standard or a process that's already in place, so it's obviously a monitor and watch situation."

He said the technology will have to prove its worth for the health and safety of mine workers.

"Any improvement that's put forward that improves the health and safety on the job for workers is good but obviously it'll be tried and tested in the workplace," he said.

"So if it's introduced for the benefit of health and safety in work then that's tremendous but obviously people will be mindful and careful of it initially, and rightly so, until obviously it proves itself.

"Any new technology that improves it is a good thing."

Last week the CFMEU hit out at comments made by Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh around the automation of mine sites.

Walsh said Rio Tinto’s push into the "robotisation" of mining was partly due to the massive wages the company has been forced to pay in Australia.

He also said it was getting harder to attract people to remote area of the country to work.

"There are trade-offs between automation and having operators do things. If you are not careful it will reach the stage where people price themselves out of the market,” Walsh said.

CFMEU national vice president Andrew Vickers lashed out at the suggestion that robotics would be implemented as a way of saving on labour costs in the mining industry, and said that comparisons of Australian wages to wages in other countries were stupid and unreasonable.

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