Automation, as a technological concept, fundamentally means exploring how different operations can be conducted automatically. In the public consciousness, automation is often limited to domains like software, engineering, or hardware manufacturing. However, automation is increasingly making a mark on the mining industry as well!
To understand the impact of automation, a good starting point would be the Asia Pacific region which is generally considered as a “hotspot” for mining. The region has many prominent countries that are expected to lead smart and automated mining initiatives such as Indonesia, India, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.
According to some studies, China leads the world in terms of potential mining and investment opportunities. This potential can be seen in the Macheng iron ore mine in Hebei Province, which is one of China’s largest new underground mines.
Macheng has a special focus on mining automation
Macheng is currently in development and will feature state-of-the-art feats of mining automation with a special focus on vehicles. With UK-headquartered Clayton Equipment securing the contract to supply 12 hybrid battery trolley locomotives to Macheng, the mine will utilize cutting-edge automation technology.
Each machine will be equipped with a cloud-based system designed to allow remote monitoring of the performance of locomotives, whether mainline or below ground, giving real-time performance data. This will enhance production efficiency, maintenance, and safety via remote machine access.
Clayton Equipment’s automated machines also prevent unscheduled downtime, troubleshoot performance issues, investigate faults, install software updates and customize the operating parameters to suit Macheng mine operators.
As drilling and exploration activities increase globally, mining automation is required to adopt networked and smart solutions to concurrent issues. A high level of technology is being incorporated in fields including remote monitoring, operational analytics and data processing, and mining safety systems.
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Automation has also allowed mining businesses to concentrate more on organizational growth and development. It ensures that organizations upgrade legacy mining equipment and installations with digital products and processes. These include data engineering and analytics to improve workplace practices, reduce operational losses, and gain a more robust strategic advantage over industry rivals.
A question to keep in mind is whether the presence of high-level technology and automation is sufficient to ensure greater mine worker safety, support onsite and underground decision-making, and enhance equipment sustainability. Mining 4.0 works towards achieving this by using robotic deployment, digital twinning, big data, IoT, 5G, the cloud, and AI technologies.
As per GlobalData, a London-based data analytics and consulting company, the revenue of the industrial robotics sector was $14.6bn in 2020. This figure is expected to reach $352.1bn by 2030. An increase in automation is expected to allow greater operational robustness and a reduction of expenditure which would in turn contribute to increased profitability.
A recent example of robust productivity due to mining automation is the opening of Gudai-Darri – an iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Australia. As of June 2022, the mine is considered to be the most technologically sophisticated mining initiative for Rio Tinto. With an expected life of more than 40 years and an annual capacity of 43 million tonnes, Gudai-Darri is a significant technological endeavor for Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore Chief Executive Simon Trott stated that“Gudai-Darri represents a step-change in the deployment of automation and technology within our iron ore business and a fantastic demonstration of the talent, ingenuity and capability that exists in Western Australia, a region which is now known globally for its technical excellence and innovation. Gudai-Darri’s combination of data and analytics, machine learning and automation will make this mine safer and more productive.”
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In addition to Trott’s comments, it is pertinent to mention that the Gudai-Darri mine will also feature the world’s first autonomous water carts in collaboration with Caterpillar, the world’s largest construction-equipment manufacturer.
The vehicles will be used for dust suppression on site thereby enhancing productivity by enabling mine operations to digitally track water consumption and to reduce waste. The vehicle’s intelligent onboard system detects dry and dusty conditions on site, triggering the application of water to roads to keep them in good condition.
On the sustainability front, which is an important consideration for mining in today’s day and age, a reduction in legacy mining expenditures is paving the way for the incorporation of remotely-operated, fully automated, and lithium-ion battery-powered robotic vehicles.
These specialized robotic vehicles are designed to inspect high walls or underwater regions, the exploration of closed and flooded mines, and obtain metals and minerals from existing sites instead of excavating new mines. An illustrative example is a UX-1 robot, first deployed in Slovenia in December 2018, which uses ultraspectral cameras to identify minerals in dark, murky water. The robot was used for ‘non-invasive autonomous 3D mine mapping’.
It goes without saying that these are exciting times for mining. Perhaps the next frontier for the industry is digital!