By Ken Stapylton

The average American uses approximately 3.4 tons of coal and nearly 40,000 lb of newly mined materials each year, according to the National Mining Association. Industry leaders generally agree that the demand for raw materials, such as coal, will continue to increase worldwide as developing countries industrialize and populations grow. To satisfy current and future demand for coal and other minerals, mining companies have to search for new, innovative ways to attain this valuable source of energy. This often means exploring and operating in difficult terrain in more remote locations. Inevitably, this shift means new challenges for safety and efficiency.

Safety is the top priority for mine operators. The coal industry continues to make great strides in the areas of safety, mine design and engineering, and processing technology. At the forefront of the new safety movement is a focus on automating mining processes like drilling, crushing and hauling.

With deeper and more remote mines, an inherent next step is to remove as much human intervention in the mineral extraction process as possible. Automated systems allow humans to communicate with and control machinery remotely, without exposure to hazardous mining environments. It reduces health and safety risks, and makes for a more lucrative and attractive work place for miners.

Increased Productivity
Automation also leads to a significant surge in productivity and efficiency. With a shortage of trained operators in the industry and an increasing demand for coal, productivity becomes a decisive challenge for the industry. Automated equipment can be better utilized and operates in a more controlled and precise manner, resulting in significant efficiency improvements. In fact, the overall expected lifetime for automated mining equipment is longer than manually operated technology. Due to the steady and controlled use of the equipment, the wear and tear is manageable and the cost effect can also be controlled. Additionally, the utilization of the equipment is higher, as no time is used traveling to or from the production area.

Autonomous operations are continuous and may operate 24 hours a day, further increasing productivity. The operator supervises the process and interacts only when disturbances occur. This continuous mining process is critical for cost-effective mining.

Sandvik Mining’s automated solutions include remote monitoring and diagnostic capabilities that enable real-time transfer of data (e.g., drilling times and penetration rates) between office and drill, leading to improved decision making. Mine managers can leverage the constant flow of health diagnostic data to plan for when a piece of equipment is due for a service or maintenance task tune-up, ultimately reducing downtime.

Automated Drilling
Autonomous technologies represent a class of innovations that are likely to change how minerals are mined and processed into the future. Examples of existing innovations range from specific pieces of equipment, such as remote-controlled vehicles and drilling equipment, to entire mines that have been designed and built around automated systems. Companies can choose from a range of autonomous operations, from more simplistic remote monitoring equipment to fully autonomous systems, depending on the particular mine operation and requirements.

Progressive mining companies are beginning to implement automated systems, with the rest of the industry expected to follow suit. To address the changing needs of its customers, Sandvik Mining recently launched an automation system for rotary drill rigs, known as AutoMine Rotary Drilling.

AutoMine Rotary Drilling provides an opportunity for companies to enhance their operations through advanced technology. Sandvik AutoMine Rotary Drilling is offered in three levels of autonomy. Level one is basic automation, where an operator is in the seat, but the machine is sending health monitoring and diagnostic data back to the command center. Level two removes more of the reliance on the operator for drilling a hole, and the operator remains on the rig. At the highest level, the drill will tram, level, drill and move to the next hole location autonomously, with an operator choreographing up to five rigs from a remote command center.

Autonomous tramming between hole locations is accomplished by the use of high-precision Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS receivers. Four hazard avoidance cameras (HazCam) detect obstacles in the drill’s path, and the area the drill is operating in is surrounded by a geo fence that prevents the drill from tramming into terrain that may be hazardous. Once in position, the machine levels up, sets the mast angle to the required angle, and starts to drill. The machine autonomously adds drill rods to achieve the desired hole depth and then removes them upon completion. Finally, the drill retracts its jacks and moves on to the next hole. During the entire process, the machine is collecting production data such as geology and drilling times, and penetration rates.

Sandvik Mining has a fully autonomous D90KS multi-pass rotary drill in production at a mine site in Australia, and a number of new AutoMine-equipped drills will be deployed in 2013. Sandvik Mining partnered with Flanders to develop this solution.

Automation is the key enabler in low grade and difficult environments. Before the introduction of automation, mining operations with these challenges were not always economically possible. The benefits of mine automation far outweigh the associated costs and challenges. Such innovations can significantly reduce the risks to human health and safety, as well as deliver process and systems efficiencies that would otherwise be impossible.

As the mining industry continues to fully realize and use automation’s potential, Sandvik Mining stands at the forefront of autonomous operations. They will continue to strive to implement innovative and high-quality equipment that first and foremost illustrates their priority toward safety. Sandvik AutoMine Rotary Drilling brings a new level of safety and productivity to surface mines globally.

Stapylton is vice president of rotary drilling at Sandvik Mining.