The benefits offered from the latest remote control and automation solutions for drill rigs include safety and productivity gains, cost savings, and the ability to more easily hire, train and retain new operators. Above, a Komatsu rig in one-touch-row operation is monitored from a safe distance. (Photo: Komatsu)

Automation and remote control solutions simplify the operator position and offer the safety and comfort that makes the work more appealing to more people

By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer

The main automation and remote control solutions for drill rigs now available simplify the operator’s job. That makes it easier for companies to hire, train, and retain operators. The solutions also offer productivity gains and cost savings. Needless to say, as success stories from the field gain attention, there is growing interest in the solutions and the suppliers that offer them.

Easing Hiring, Training, Retaining

FLANDERS reported the ARDVARC control system is increasingly being deployed to electric drills, a trend furthered by the general push within the mining industry for sustainable development.

“This is especially true in Chile and Peru, where advancement was slow but has now kicked into gear given the number of electric machines at altitude,” said Jim Elkins, global business development, drill automation.

The system, which has been on the market for roughly 14 years, enables both remote control and full automation. Data collection, machine monitoring, the capability for one operator to manage multiple drills, “and all other ARDVARC features and advantages apply to most OEM makes and models, as ARDVARC can be retrofitted to almost any make and model, standardizing a mixed fleet,” Elkins said. “A mine can retrofit multiple OEM drills that are currently in production as long as the target machine is in good mechanical and electrical health.”

The ARDVARC population is vast and growing. “There are great success stories in each continent where we operate, Australia, Africa, and North and South America,” he said. For example, a mine in South Africa that adopted ARDVARC autonomous drilling cut drill costs by 33%. “This specific mine reduced fleet utilization from six to four drills, achieving the same production with four ARDVARC converted drills as was completed before with six manually operated machines.”

Beyond cutting costs, mining engineers have reported the solution increases productivity and improves fragmentation while decreasing maintenance and offering safety gains.

“Across a fleet of operators, we have seen a 30% increase in production due to decreasing the time spent in the drill cycle and being able to operate through shift changes and blasts,” Elkins said. “This increase does not sacrifice accuracy, as patterns are drilled as specified by mine planning, accurately locating holes at x and y coordinates and elevation, decreasing time spent preparing the next bench.”

The improved fragmentation offered can help a miner realize substantial gains downstream. “It is imperative to adopt a technology that can be so effective and transformative simply by addressing one of the basic tenants of the mining process, optimizing fragmentation,” he said.

For mine managers, beyond the abovementioned benefits, ARDVARC presents the opportunity to lower carbon emissions and otherwise meet some intangible corporate goals. “As it applies to decreasing carbon emissions, an ARDVARC-converted diesel machine will operate in low idle much more often than a manually controlled unit, resulting in an estimated 2% savings in diesel use and costs,” Elkins said. “The increased efficiency and productivity achieved from ARDVARC further reduces overall fuel use and cost.”

Mine managers can use the data collected by the system to optimize utilization and maintenance planning. “The ARDVARC drill control solution can mitigate current supply chain constraints via its comprehensive maintenance data collection,” Elkins said. “As drill health is addressed proactively, availability and utilization increase, and catastrophic failures decrease, reducing dependence on the supply chain for critical parts.”

By moving the operator out of the cab, away from the pit and high walls, and to an office environment, substantial safety gains are realized. The improved fragmentation eases material handling, which reduces the instances of maintenance personnel having to manage potentially dangerous repair situations.

The automation capabilities offered by ARDVARC can simplify the operator’s role, which helps a miner facing staffing issues. “Operating multiple drills from a control room setting is a position applicable and attractive to any gender,” Elkins said. “It is a clean and safe environment and utilizes the gaming skills that are prevalent and seemingly innate to those currently entering the workforce.”

The system helps level the playing field by helping newer operators achieve critical performance metrics. “We have seen experienced manual drillers become the best autonomous driller, but customers have also seen the learning curve shortened for those just entering the field,” he said. “It can help reduce the educational background requirements of new hires.”

Further, there are zero limitations to autonomously operating an ARDVARC-controlled drill. “Historically, operators have had years of drilling experience, but around 2013 a critical turning point was reached,” Elkins said. “A drill operator scorecard identified the most productive driller in that month had only three months of experience.”

More recently, an operation in South Africa reported that the system helped operators to work more comfortably and longer in the role, as the conditions are not as harsh in the field, he said. “Equal hiring practices and diversity are immediately addressed once an ARDVARC autonomous drill program is introduced.”

There are zero limitations to autonomously operating an ARDVARC-controlled drill. The system can help a miner facing staffing issues. (Photo: FLANDERS)

Higher Productivity, Lower Wear and Tear

Hexagon’s Mining division reported testing is underway for a new digital interface for HxGN MineAutomate Drill Assist, an OEM-agnostic drill rig automation solution. “This new interface further reduces the downtime to install, minimizes he intrusion of the layer of technology into the drill rig, and eliminates the support risk to the end user,” said Curtis Stacy, senior product manager, autonomous drilling.

“The new machine interface would be relevant for any digitally controlled, or CAN-bus control-system-based, drill rigs such as Epiroc Pit Viper models, Sandvik iSeries, and CAT electronics-controlled drill rigs,” he said. “This interface connects at the control bus network level and mimics the inputs an operator would generate were they operating the machine manually.”

The new interface will also reduce the number of sensors required for operation. It uses “the sensors already installed by the OEM, further reducing maintenance requirements and support risk to the end user,” he said.

Additionally, data captured by HxGN Drill Assist is now available off-board the rig for analysis and reporting.

Hexagon effectively acquired Drill Assist when it partnered with Phoenix Drill Control, the maker of the solution, in February 2022. In Q2 2022, Stacy described Drill Assist as an OEM-agnostic blasthole-drill-automation control platform. It uses a layer-of-technology approach and artificial intelligence-enabled control algorithms to provide “measurable performance increases across all operator skill levels while preserving the OEM machine control system.”

Drill Assist interfaces with the machine by creating a digital operator, which digitally mimics the actions a human operator would take while operating the drill rig, Stacy said.

“Hexagon’s approach automates only those systems on board the drill that are required for the desired level of automation, thereby limiting the intrusion into the existing control system even further,” he said. When the drill is not under autonomous control, “the machine is exactly as delivered from the factory.”

After acquiring Drill Assist, Hexagon started integrating it into the supplier’s broader technology suite ecosystem for drilling and blasting. “We are primarily focused on data analytics and end-user value-add produced by the data generated by the Drill Assist application,” Stacy said.

The benefits offered include ease of operability, improved operator and rig performance, improved hole quality, reduced training time, and improved productivity metrics.

The system uses artificial intelligence in determining drilling parameters, which could be of particular benefit to coal miners, he said. “AI algorithms determine the best drilling parameters for any given ground conditions, resulting in higher productivity and lower wear and tear on consumables and machine structures.”

The algorithm that detects changes in drilling conditions “can be tuned to detect coal interfaces and store those elevations in the drill hole data logs,” Stacy said. “The AI already detects changes in rock hardness, voids, and subterranean geological faults,” he said. “Teaching the AI to detect coal interfaces would require an interested customer and a few months of algorithm lessons.”

The system was conceived roughly six years ago. Proof of concept testing was on a CAT 6420 single-pass rotary drill. From there, the system was developed for simple adoption, deployment, and integration.

Drill Assist was originally intended for customers with mixed drill rig fleets and the desire to incrementally adopt automation. It was designed to be easily operated and maintained directly by the customer.

Further, by “embracing open standards initiatives,” engineers designed Drill Assist to “not lock clients out of their rigs in any way,” Stacy said.

Drill Assist hardware is sourced from providers that have end-of-life strategies for their products and that offer direct replacements when those products become obsolete. “This enables us to port the software from one hardware platform to the next with minimal engineering effort,” Stacy said. “The core of the technology is software-based, allowing the end user decades of value.”

Hexagon Mining is developing Drill Assist to integrate with other Hexagon solutions, to include high-precision guidance applications and, ultimately, Hexagon’s Mission Manager application. Above, Drill Assist is trialed at a mine in the Southwest, U.S.A. (Photo: Hexagon Mining)

In theory, that should allow Hexagon “to continue to innovate without customers having to make regretful expenditures on hardware that becomes obsolete, but rather get new and better technology tools each year,” he said.

Currently, field results have shown the system and the analytics it informs “greatly improves drilling operations,” Stacy said. Those results have prompted inquiries from customers around the world. “The Drill Assist population around the world is on a growth footing and we will be releasing results from early adopters soon,” he said. “We are expecting a strong growth in 2023 deployments after the first commissioned deployment with Hexagon integration.”

Going forward, Drill Assist will continue to be developed for further integration into Hexagon’s technology ecosystem. “We will standardize some of the hardware to leverage existing Hexagon technology offerings, such as high-precision machine guidance applications and collision avoidance technologies, ending finally with a fully autonomous drill application based on Hexagon’s Mission Manager application,” Stacy said. “Parallel to the operational roadmap, integration into Hexagon’s data analytics platforms promises to offer unrivaled data-to-information value for end users.”

The solution ultimately will “solidify Hexagon as the preeminent OEM-agnostic autonomous supplier to the mining industry,” he said. “It will solidify Hexagon’s Mining division as a technology leader in the drill and blast solutions space,” Stacy said. “Those two synergies are game changers.”

Doing More With Less

Komatsu reported a customer is using Komatsu Drill Automation and line-of-sight teleoperation technology to remove operators from the cab.

“The customer will be operating multiple drills, with multiple operators in this configuration to remove personnel from the drill pad as the next step in their autonomous drilling roadmap,” said Wesley Taylor, product manager, automation, Komatsu. “We have worked successfully with our regional team and the customer on training and assisting in the deployment roll-out process of this technology.”

The development comes as the technology is lauded by other customers. “Feedback from drill operators has enabled improvements to our user experience and streamlining automation setup and monitoring,” he said.

One-touch-row automation capability is part of the Drill Automation Auto Pilot system, which is now available on the 320XPC, the ZR77, and the ZR122 drills. “This software upgrade to our base Automation package allows for the drill operator to develop a drilling mission comprised of a single hole to an entire row,” Taylor said. “The drill will execute that mission while the operator is monitoring the machine, only intervening if an exception or fault occurs.”

With one-touch-row automation, the operator programs the mission. After the push of a button, the rig completes it, navigating autonomously hole to hole. In a 2022 interview, Taylor said the capability enables the rig to level itself and drill. “It will bring the drill back out of the hole, unlevel, and then attack the next hole in that prescribed plan that the operator developed.”

One-touch-row automation is the latest addition to a growing portfolio of automation and tele-remote-control solutions for Komatsu machines. Offerings within the portfolio can help a miner solve trending challenges posed by a tight labor market and dysfunctional supply chains.

For example, automation and tele-remote control can help a customer maximize the ability and productivity of existing staff. Komatsu has developed its automation solutions not to replace operators, but to empower them, Taylor said. The result is drill automation that can deliver high production and good compliance to plan regardless of the experience level of the attending operator.

“What automation can do is it can amplify that labor so that the lowest capability is still pretty high,” Taylor said.

Tele-remote capability will help a miner to do more drilling, more safely, and with fewer attending operators. 

Komatsu tele-remote control and automation solutions are designed to be adaptable to the capabilities of an existing network. “If their network allows them to be a kilometer (km) away, our drill automation system would allow that connectivity and control from that distance,” he said. “If they are 5 km away or greater, so long as the mine has established their network, they can kind of adjust it to their needs so they can manage where their workforce is and how their workforce gains access to the drills.”

The distance from the operator to a rig equipped with Komatsu tele-remote control and automation solutions is limited only by the range of coverage of the wireless network at the mine. (Photo: Komatsu)

The automation solutions, such as one-touch-row operation, enable management of a drill while using relatively less bandwidth than would be the case were it manually controlled remotely. “Because we are mission planning, operators are developing a mission to send to the drill, and so we don’t need that level of infrastructure or bandwidth to allow for high productivity on our remote-controlled drills,” Taylor said.

“That data demand allows our customers to go with a lower-quality network, not necessarily a very high-speed 5G or LTE network,” he said. “They can start with a smaller or lower-speed network because they are really transferring the mission and monitoring the drill.”

Komatsu’s portfolio of automation solutions positions a customer to better weather supply chain constraints by reducing the wear on rigs. Automation reduces operational variability and improves consistency, both of which help in both reducing and predicting future maintenance needs.

“When you are automating a piece of equipment, the machine does what we tell it to do,” Taylor said. “It does the mission. It knows its limits,” he said. “When you are talking about component wear, and premature component failures that could have been induced by poor operating practices, automation helps to reduce a lot of that variability.”

By reducing variability, “you are not going to be burning through components nearly as fast as you could with the human in the chair who might be going beyond the desired limits of the machine in operation,” Taylor said.

This year and next, Komatsu plans to release new functions to the Auto Pilot system and the Non-Line-of-Sight Drill Automation technology.

Two Caterpillar MD6310 units, similar to the above, at a Thiess project at a coal mine in Australia were equipped with MineStar Command, enabling their remote control. (Photo: Caterpillar)

Automation Improves Cat Rig Performance

By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer

Caterpillar, WesTrac and Thiess collaboration at a Thiess coal project in Australia attained a 20% improvement in drilling performance using Cat MineStar Command on an MD6250 and two MD6310 units.

The “world-first autonomous drilling solution” reduced rework and associated costs, increased utilization and conformity to plan, and gave critical data for machine monitoring. It also improved safety and supported efforts to hire, train and retain operators.

The automation was implemented in phases. First, an MD6310 has equipped with MineStar Command’s Operator Machine Assist (OMA) technology.

“OMA allows the operator to select a row, and the machine will then automatically navigate from hole to hole and drill each one in that selected row,” Caterpillar said. “Operators remain in the cab with OMA, but they serve more of a supervisory role, making sure the autonomy is operating correctly, keeping an eye on the overall pattern, and watching for who and what approaches the drill.”

Next, the site implemented the next level of Command autonomy onto the drill. It was equipped with the Semi-Autonomous Drilling System, which automates the entire drilling cycle for one row. Additionally, a remote operator station was also established.

“Removing the operator from the cab is the next step in the autonomy journey,” Caterpillar said. “Command for drilling offers two levels of autonomous drilling: line-of-sight operation and one that moves operators away from the drilling site,” the OEM said. “Both enable autonomous drilling for multiple drills.”

For the next phase, an operator managed two rigs, the MD6310 and an MD6250, from the remote operator station. The achievement was a world-first success.

After that, another MD6310 was equipped with Command, enabling the operator to remotely manage three autonomous drills.