Robotics in mining: Q&A with GlobalData thematic analyst

The three common goals of mining companies – safety, productivity…

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David Kurtz is director of research & analysis for construction, mining and energy at GlobalData, and is responsible for the company’s published data and insights on these sectors. He joined the company from Datamonitor in 2013, where he spent ten years based in London leading the energy and utilities business unit, before moving to Sydney in 2004 to head the Asia Pacific operations. 

Lara Virrey: What are the most exciting developments in robotics for the mining industry today?   

David Kurtz: Some of the most exciting developments relate to the automation of equipment. Although this is not new, it has primarily been only in the largest mines that this has been possible, but research has been conducted which indicates that mines could operate more efficiently with large number of small trucks (link), which could open up the possibility of using autonomous trucks to more mines.  

Lara Virrey: What are the key challenges in the mining that robotics can help with?  

David Kurtz: The two core challenges are safety and productivity. For the former, use or robotics can remove personnel from hazardous situations, such as through use of line-of-sight, teleremote or autonomous equipment.  

The use of such equipment at both underground and surface mines is increasing with GlobalData estimating over 1,000 underground mining trucks and LHDs in use that operate autonomously or are tele-remote controlled, while there are over 1,600 surface haul trucks that are autonomous ready as of July this year. Indications from miners and OEMs suggest that reductions in accidents of 50% or more can result from the use of autonomous equipment. 

Secondly with regards to safety, robotic techniques often leave the mine’s structural integrity stronger than humans could. Inspection drones can fly directly into the site without overburdening the structure and continuous cutting vehicles can cut tunnels in regular rectangle shapes, which have better integrity than the tunnels produced by detonation.  

With regards to productivity, the rising use of robotics is helping to drive down mining costs, which is critical given the opposing cost pressures arising from increasing scarcity of minerals, poorer grades, more remote deposits and a general trend towards more mining underground.  

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Examples of the improvements in productivity from robotics include, in the case of autonomous surface trucks, 15-30% improvements in productivity, 30% improved performance over those with operators and a 40% increase in machine utilization. And linked to improved productivity would be reduced fuel consumption and so less impact on the environment.  

Vehicles can use pre-defined GPS courses and sensors to navigate haul roads and intersections automatically, perform much longer hours than humans, and require less staff. Robotic inspection technology can generate higher-quality data than human inspectors, and do so more quickly.  

Useful applications include real-time 3D mapping and thermal diagnostic capabilities that can ‘see’ issues undetectable to human eyes or normal cameras. Speed of detection has a significant impact on the eventual cost of the issue.  

Robotic maintenance equipment can repair issues with less downtime. For example, an idler on a belt can be changed without the conveyor belt needing to be stopped at all; a human fix would need twenty minutes of downtime. The robot lifts the belt and changes the idler while the belt is still running. 

Underground rock cutting is more efficient with robotic techniques. The conventional technique involves personnel going underground, drilling holes, inserting explosives, evacuating, then detonating, then waiting eight hours for the smoke and debris to clear, then re-entering and repeating.  

Robotic continuous cutting methods cut rectangular bores, leaving flat floors, making it easier and faster for vehicles and personnel to move further into the mine and continue mining. Lastly, robotic mining techniques make resources at existing mines that were previously too difficult or expensive to mine accessible. 

Lara Virrey: Which barriers to implementation of robotic technologies remain in the mining industry, and how could they be overcome?  

David Kurtz: The main barrier is cost, particularly the initial investment cost. For a mine with only a limited number of years remaining, it may not be possible to justify the investment, hence it has principally been those long-life mines which have been early adopters of robotic technology. As the cost of technology has fallen, however, so we are seeing increased adoption of robotics, and not just by the largest miners. 

Research by GlobalData into mine-site adoption of technologies has revealed that, while the majors are further ahead in terms of adoption of autonomous or remote-control vehicles, the level of investment in drones, for example, is fairly similar.   

Another barrier is skills. As miners evolve and integrate more technology into their operations, so the capabilities of their workforce must also change, and miners are finding it challenging to recruit and retain such workers.  

According to GlobalData’s jobs database, there was a 47% increase in job postings for roles which involved robotics between 2020 and 2022, but also a 43% increase in the time taken to close those roles. As of August 2023, the time to close robotics-related jobs in mining had increased a further 30% compared with 2022, so while we are seeing more companies looking to invest, there may be delays in implementation whist they source the personnel required.  

Lara Virrey: Which companies are the leading adopters of robotic technologies in the mining sector?  

David Kurtz: Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals Group are all very extensive users of autonomous surface haul trucks, accounting for around half of the global population, whilst Glencore, Agnico Eagle Mines and Barrick Gold are amongst the leaders in use of tele-remote and autonomous machines underground.  

Meanwhile, Teck Resources’ autonomous fleet is growing rapidly and Anglo American’s FutureSmart mining innovation initiative include low-profile autonomous ‘swarms’ of vehicles that can replace people in underground mines and a SQUID drone exploration technology for finding metallic deposits buried under other conducting metals.  

May miners have also implemented automated loading and autonomous drilling. For example, Boliden uses automated loading systems at mines including its Garpenberg mine, and at Garpenberg and Kankberg, the company has trialled autonomous drilling systems.  

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