Can robots in mining be a perfect partner for human miners?
Mining is one of the labor-intensive industries that is also inherently a dangerous profession. As the sector seeks to mitigate the dangers through technology, robotics offers the best panacea to deal with the danger, dull and dirty of the industry. Hence, today, mining is predominantly reliant on robotics for a wide range of applications, while providing a safer work environment for the human miners. Simultaneously, mining robots are helping mining companies increase their productivity and profitability.
In mining, excavation is the most life-threatening activity. Miners always are on the verge of being susceptible to mining accidents like toxic gas fumes, sudden floods, breathing mining dust, and others. Robots like UX-1 help in exploration and mapping abandoned mines, and gather valuable geological, mineralogical, and spatial information that cannot be obtained any other way. In December 2018, the 60 cm spherical UX-1 was put to the test by navigating a narrow, flooded passage in Slovenia’s Idrija mercury mine. This field test was carried to determine whether the robot can autonomously navigate the closed mine’s dark, murky waters and use its multispectral camera to recognize different minerals.
Stanley Innovation also has an advanced custom robot that is placed on a Segway robotic mobility platform (RMP), allowing it to maneuver over hazardous terrain.
This use of mining robots will not only enhance safety, and lower costs, but also address the need to meet product demands by accessing ores situated in increasingly challenging conditions. Some of these mining robots can also help locate unique minerals even with low visibility. Further, currently, mining robots are ready to with potential to extract rare minerals from space.
Apart from excavation, robotic mapping and surveying, robots are used for automated drilling too. Drilling mineral ores from the ground poses a danger to humans as they need explosives to break apart rocks. Today, robot-operated drills can conduct drilling deep in the land as well as offshore, allowing mining companies to dig deeper and in challenging conditions and terrains. For instance, Rio Tinto is employing autonomous drilling systems at its mines in Pilbara in Western Australia. It is the first company that achieved fully automated hole-pattern drilling without human intervention. Rio Tinto’s Autonomous Drill System (ADS) allows an operator to use a single console at a remote location to control four autonomous drill rigs from multiple manufacturers simultaneously, thus improving precision and equipment utilization.
Even BHP has trialed automated drilling technology on Pit Viper 271 rigs supplied by Atlas Copco at the Yandi mine in Pilbara. The PV- 271 can work around 11.5 hours of a 12-hour shift, under the supervision of just one person to oversee three drills, as compared with around eight and a half hours with previous human operators. Pit Vipers operated autonomously for more than 15,000 hours and drilled more than one million meters, which was an impressive feat. This also indicates that while human workers are prone to fatigue and need rest, robotic mining tools don’t get tired. Therefore, the speed at which they work is steady. Moreover, they don’t make errors, and are also much easier to scale up and scale down.
Another interesting robotics application in mining is: drones. BHP Billiton’s mines in Queensland, Australia, uses drones to confirm clearance before blasts, monitor traffic, road conditions, and hazards and provide real-time aerial footage and 3D maps. Additionally, we also have robotic assistants like Julius, a wheeled robot featuring a robotic arm tipped with a three-fingered hand capable of holding scanning devices to analyze the quality of ore samples. Robot manipulator like Robotic Idler Predict uses its sensors to automatically position the sensing arms at specific locations of a conveyor belt.
Thanks to robots, the mining environment has become simpler to manage and more controllable. Even using IoT devices, mining robotics can make a tremendous leap in making the industry automated, efficient and safer for human workers, while still maintaining its status of being a profitable business.