Australian Mining journalist Michael Mills spoke to Rio Tinto’s general manager of automation Andrew Stokes about the development of automated technology in the mining industry.
Mills: Why do you think the mining industry has been slow to embrace automation technology in the past?
Stokes: There has been a lot of money spent over the last 30 years with the aim of automating certain mining functions, but this has mainly been in North America and for underground operations.
Some pieces of equipment certainly could have been automated sooner than they have been.
For instance, we identified that blast-hole drill rigs could be automated back in the mid-1990s.
We expected the drill manufacturers to produce new automated versions quite quickly after this, but they never did.
Back then, they did not really see any benefit in manufacturing the technology, because it would have been expensive and time consuming.
The actual mining companies are the ones who stand to benefit most from automation, which is why Rio Tinto has taken up the challenge.
Mills: Are other companies looking to take a similar stance and invest in the technology?
Stokes: There were various companies and technology groups that have started down this path.
However, a number of them have scaled back investment over the last two years thanks to the global financial crisis.
A couple of high-profile companies actually disbanded their automation teams.
Mills: What kind of research has Rio Tinto been carrying out?
Stokes: The highest-profile project has probably been the Komatsu AHF autonomous truck system, which we have demonstrated at the West Angeles mine for the past 18 months.
However, automation technology also concerns the processes associated with such equipment.
As such, we established the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation (RTCMA) at the University of Sydney.
This is part of a long-term strategy for a more holistic implementation of automation across a wide range of applications.
The data we gained from the work with blast-hole drill rigs has been really central to that and has been applied to many other processes.
Mills: What have been the most exciting developments you have seen over the last 15 years?
Stokes: Well, the Komatsu automated trucks are very visually impressive.
However, there have been many other not-so-visual projects that have been probably more impressive thanks to their results.
There are a lot of systems in the mining industry that are very effective at collecting and using data.
However, this is one area where I think we need to get smarter in the future.
Not every company has the people and time available to use that data effectively in their processes.
Mills: How do think this area of data collection and process automation will change in the next couple of years?
Stokes: I think we will see better techniques to turn data into useful information and automatically act on it.
For instance, several manufacturers at the moment are producing systems that look at machine health.
These systems continually evaluate the machine and automatically identify when they need attention.
Some companies are trying to create ‘data warehouses’ to store their information and that is a valid approach.
However, we are taking a different tack and using ‘data fusion.’
Data fusion involves taking different types of information from a variety of sources to form a more a holistic picture of the operation.
Mills: What is your long-term vision for automation in the mining industry?
Stokes: We need to get smarter about how we do things.
Over the last 30 or 40 years, particularly in the equipment side of things, we have lowered the unit mining costs by the economies of scale.
All of the equipment that we use, certainly in surface mining, has got a lot bigger but has also got a lot more efficient.
But as things have gotten bigger and quicker, we have not been properly using the data to optimise the mining process.
I do not think the next developments in mining technology will be larger equipment, because I think we are approaching the physical size limit right now.
But, I think we will increasingly be able to capture data from a variety of sources and use it to optimise the mining process.