The mining sector is ideal for automation. It's capital intensive, involves costly investments in equipment and has high labor costs. It’s also hazardous: Miners face dangers ranging from explosions to falling debris to entrapment.
Mining is also essential for the modern world to function, as it is the only way to obtain the precious minerals we need for our electronic devices.
It's no wonder then that the mining industry is embracing robotics, including autonomous trucks, loaders, drilling and tunnel-boring systems. Autonomous mining capabilities recently expanded over the summer with the debut of the first autonomous long-distance trains, which carry materials away from the mine to destinations for shipping. All of this automation is bringing a new degree of safety to mines while increasing efficiency.
Mining outfits are well positioned to increase their automation because they already have centralized control systems, which rely on software and internet connections.
Eventually, we could see fully-automated mines that are completely devoid of manpower. Automation also means expanded capabilities, such as mining the ocean floor or in outer space. This could drastically expand our access to very precious, rare minerals.
The Future is Now
Mining automation in the form of autonomous ore-carrying vehicles is fast becoming the industry standard. These massive trucks use similar technologies seen in other autonomous vehicles to work virtually around the clock, since there is no need for employee breaks or shift changeovers.
Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, uses at least 80 of these three-story-high trucks at iron mines in Western Australia. These vehicles navigate using GPS and “look” for obstacles using radar and laser sensors. The mining outfit recently deployed driverless trains that can carry ore across hundreds of miles of track. Autonomous mining vehicles also go underground. Their laser and radar sensors allow for safe and rapid movement in narrow, dusty tunnels, which humans often have trouble navigating.
Automation isn’t just used moving ore, but also for mining functions. To break up stone for excavation, human miners drill holes and then fill them with explosives. Autonomous drill rigs can achieve similar results much faster, safer and with greater reliability than standard human-operated equipment.
Automated systems also open up the possibility of accessing abandoned mines that had become unproductive or became flooded with water. In the United Kingdom, engineers with the Viable Alternative Mine Operating System (VAMOS) program are developing robots that can mine ore underwater.
Somewhat resembling the "road header" machines already used in mines, the new automated system is designed to pulverize ore with spiked heads. The resulting slurry is then pumped to the surface.
Along with autonomous equipment that displaces human miners, engineers are also developing mining robots that can assist humans. An autonomous mining assistant known as “Julius” is a wheeled robot as large as a shopping cart that is equipped with a robotic arm and a three-fingered hand. This appendage can hold scanning devices extremely still to investigate the quality of ore specimens.
Finally, various kinds of robotics will be used to monitor operations and ensure everything is functioning smoothly. Some will enter mines to gather information on temperature, stone stability and other factors that might impact miner safety. In open-pit mines, flying drones soaring can photograph the landscape to produce 3D maps for the moving of equipment and watch out for possible rockslides.
All large mining operations are expected to broaden their use of automation in the coming years as robotics technology continues to advance. The recent, large investments by auto and tech businesses in driverless cars will help to speed up advancements, lowering the cost and boosting performance of sensors, software, and other essential technologies.