Automated mining

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Automated mining involves the removal of human labor from the mining process.[1] The mining industry is in the transition towards automation. It can still require a large amount of human capital, particularly in the third world where labor costs are low so there is less incentive for increasing efficiency. Automated mining is an umbrella term that refers to two types of technology. The first type of mining automation deals with process and software automation; the second type deals with applying robotic technology to mining vehicles and equipment.

By 2014 there were two locations in the world using automated mining, the Pilbara region of Australia and Bingham Canyon Mine in the United States.

Mine automation software[edit]

In order to gain more control over their operations, mining companies may implement mining automation software or processes. Mine management solutions like Pitram Mining Solutions[2] and Extreme[3] help mine administrators organize, control, and monitor mining events throughout the site in real time. Reports generated by mine automation software allow administrators to identify productivity bottlenecks, increase accountability, and better understand ROI.

Mining equipment automation[edit]

Addressing concerns about how to improve productivity and safety in the mine site, some mine companies are turning to equipment automation consisting of robotic hardware and software technologies that convert vehicles or equipment into autonomous mining units.

Mine equipment automation comes in three different forms: remote control, teleoperation, and full automation.

Remote control[edit]

Remote control mining equipment usually refers to mining vehicles such as excavators or bulldozers that are controlled with a handheld remote control. An operator stands in line-of-sight and uses the remote control to perform the normal vehicle functions. Because visibility and feel of the machine are heavily reduced, vehicle productivity is generally reduced as well using remote control. Remote control technology is generally used to enable mining equipment to operate in dangerous conditions such as unstable terrain, blast areas or in high risk areas of falling debris, or underground mining. Remote control technology is generally the least expensive way to automate mining equipment making it an ideal entry point for companies looking to test the viability of robotic technology in their mine.

Teleoperation[edit]

Teleoperated mining equipment refers to mining vehicles that are controlled by an operator at a remote location with the use of cameras, sensors, and possibly additional positioning software. Teleoperation allows an operator to further remove themselves from the mining location and control a vehicle from a more protected environment. Joysticks or other handheld controls are still used to control the vehicle's functions, and operators have greater access to vehicle telemetry and positioning data through the teleoperation software. With the operator removed from the cab, teleoperated mining vehicles may also experience reduced productivity; however, the operator has a better vantage point than remote control from on-vehicle cameras and sensors and is further removed from potentially dangerous conditions.

Semi-automation[edit]

Semi-automation refers to partly automated control of mining machines. Only some of the functions are automated and operator intervention is needed.

Full automation[edit]

Full automation can refer to the autonomous control of one or more mining vehicles. Robotic components manage all critical vehicle functions including ignition, steering, transmission, acceleration, braking, and implement control (i.e. blade control, dump bed control, excavator bucket and boom, etc.) without the need for operator intervention. Fully autonomous mining systems experience the most productivity gains as software controls one or more mining vehicles allowing operators to take on the role of mining facilitators, troubleshooting errors and monitoring efficiency.

Benefits[edit]

The benefits of mining equipment automation technologies are varied but may include: improved safety, better fuel efficiency, increased productivity, reduced unscheduled maintenance, improved working conditions, better vehicle utilization, and reduced driver fatigue and attrition. Automation technologies are an efficient way to mitigate the effects of widespread labor shortages for positions such as haul truck driver. In the face of falling commodity prices, many mining companies are looking for ways to dramatically reduce overhead costs while still maintaining site safety and integrity; automation may be the answer.

Drawbacks[edit]

Critics of vehicle automation often focus on the potential for robotic technology to eliminate jobs while proponents counter that while some jobs will become obsolete (normally the dirty, dangerous, or monotonous jobs), others will be created. Communities supporting underprivileged workers that rely on entry level mining positions are worried about and are calling for social responsibility as mining companies transition to automation technologies that promise to increase productivity in the face of falling commodity prices. Risk averse mining companies are also reluctant to commit large amounts of capital to an unproven technology, preferring more often to enter the automation scene at lower, more inexpensive levels such as remote control.

Companies offering mining equipment automation[edit]

Caterpillar Inc. and Komatsu Limited both offer OEM-based vehicle automation solutions. The CAT MineStar[4] system enables fully autonomous control of drilling, dozing, hauling, longwall, and other underground mining tasks. Komatsu's Autonomous Haul System (AHS)[5] equips haul trucks with on-board vehicle controllers, sensors, positioning systems to enable them to coordinate in a complex mining haulage system. Each of these OEM-based systems is fully integrated with proprietary technology and are proven in some of the largest mines in the world.

Some mining companies may be interested in "vendor-independent" solutions. Third party services such as Autonomous Solutions, Inc's Nav/Mobius system[6] and Sandvik's AutoMine[7] system retrofit to an existing fleet, provide the same automation capabilities as OEM-based systems, but allow mining companies to avoid long-term OEM exclusive agreements.

Examples of autonomous mining equipment[edit]

Mine of the future[edit]

Rio Tinto Group embarked on their Mine of the Future initiative in 2008. From a control center in Perth, Rio Tinto employees operate autonomous mining equipment in Australia's remote but mineral rich Pilbara region. The autonomous mining vehicles reduce the footprint of the mining giant while improving productivity and vehicle utilization. As of June 2014,[8] Rio Tinto's autonomous mining fleet reached the milestone of 200 million tons hauled.

Bingham Canyon Mine[edit]

Located near Salt Lake City, Utah, the Bingham Canyon Mine (Kennecott Utah Copper/Rio Tinto) is one of the largest open pit mine in the world and one of the world's largest copper producers. In April 2013, the mine experienced a catastrophic landslide that halted much of the mine's operations. As part of the cleanup efforts and to improve safety, mine administrators turned to remote control excavator and dozer solutions to perform work on the highly unstable terrain areas. Robotic technology helped Kennecott to reduce the steeper, more dangerous areas of the slide to allow manned vehicles access for cleanup efforts.

See also[edit]

References[edit]