When miners are replaced by robots

© Форпост Северо-Запад

Orica, the world’s largest manufacturer of explosives, presented the world’s first Avatel™ mix-charging machine for unmanned horizontal tunneling in St. Petersburg. It allows to carry out drilling and blasting operations that precede the process of mining, without human intervention. Will it be the next step toward fully robotic mining and turn today’s miners into operators who control unmanned machinery from an office hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away from the mine?

Forpost addressed this question to Sergey Moser, Chief Operating Officer of the Russian division of Orica CIS Corporation.

- What is the technology you presented? Is it a pilot sample, a prototype, or has the final product already passed the testing stage?

- The machine has already left the factory and is working in test mode at one of the underground mines. All of its components have been successfully tested earlier and brought up to speed during industrial tests. Therefore, it is safe to say that we have assembled all of our best solutions on one chassis. The first commercial launch is scheduled at Newcrest’s Cadia Valley Operations in early 2022.

Avatel™ does everything a blaster needs to do on the face. It prepares the face for charging, in particular by pumping out the water and, if necessary, blowing the blasting holes (the pre-drilled holes - ed.) with special hoses to charge the explosives. Then, following the drilling and blasting datasheet, it puts intermediate detonators, programs them, and installs them in the boreholes.

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© Сергей Мозер

For the time being, an engineer is sitting in the Avatel™ cab and observing the operating parameters in order to promptly fix any technical problems. The whole process will be fully robotized in the future. The drilling machine will automatically bore everything, the charging machine will automatically charge everything, and then the explosion will happen. So, in the near future, we are ready to offer the market a completely unmanned technology.

- What preferences will your clients get, apart from increased production safety?

- Now, all other things being equal, the average charging time at the tunneling site is about one hour, but with this system, it will be cut in half, to thirty minutes. Besides, the customer can be sure of an optimum blasting result, even in difficult geological conditions, with an unparalleled safety standard.

- Many people who are not familiar with the mining industry find it difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this development. Is it really a breakthrough? The industry cannot get away with blasting at all?

- Unlike coal, the hardness of rock in most hard mineral deposits is quite high, and you can’t do without drilling and blasting to get the ore. Moreover, the charging of boreholes is a rather long and time-consuming process, which takes place mainly in manual mode and can be accompanied, unfortunately, by injuries or even fatal accidents.

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All leading mining companies use costly, time-consuming, and often ineffective control measures to avoid risks at the mine face. We have a solution that could fundamentally change the situation. Mechanization will not only improve worker safety but also significantly increase labor productivity.

- And when will mining enterprises become fully robotic? Is it possible in principle?

- Every five to ten years, it is declared that people are about to leave the quarries and mines and they will be replaced by robots. I hear such predictions all the time. The idea of unmanned mining is not new; it has been floating around since the seventies. But half a century has passed since then, and all the solutions that existed made it possible to implement it, if at all, only at the level of individual elements - unmanned dump trucks, drilling rigs, and so on.

However, now more than ever, we are close to implementing the strategy of an intelligent digital mine, which the operator controls from the office. This is one of the priorities of the entire mining industry. But you have to understand here that we cannot get people out of every quarry, every mine or mine.

© Форпост Северо-Запад

If we’re talking about some ideal conditions when we have good rock stability, good roads, and a developed 5G network, then such a solution can really be implemented within two to three years. Last year, I launched a mix-and-charges machine project at the Dundee Precious Metals underground mine in Bulgaria. They have 5G everywhere, and the culture and working conditions are good. That is, almost the entire infrastructure is ready for automation. If those conditions aren’t there, it’s only partially possible or impossible to adapt to unmanned technology like Avatel™.

Usually, the key problem is insufficient mining footprint or bottlenecks such as lack of skilled engineering staff. Needless to say, the mining industry today has a tremendous shortage of personnel, and to run a robotic plant, employees must have the highest level of competence.

According to my forecasts, in 3 years there will already be model mines where the mining process will be fully automated. However, it is still premature to expect that they will account for a significant share of the total volume of mining enterprises.