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Digitising drill and blast operations

By Matthew Hall 23 Feb 2021 (Last Updated February 23rd, 2021 02:48)

Drill and blast operations are an important, complex, and safety-critical part of many early-stage mining projects. Automation and digitisation solutions are already starting to enhance blasting activities around the world, as attested to by a range of projects and partnerships. We search the globe for some of the biggest recent innovations.

Digitising drill and blast operations
“The system is less complicated and fully digitised, which means higher fidelity of tie-in to reduce misfire potential,” said Dallas Gostelow. Credit: Blastcube

Automated or digitised drill and blast operations have the potential to improve productivity and increase profit margins at mine operations while enhancing worker safety, and greater attention is being paid to innovations in this vital early stage of mining projects.

These technologies can remove the need for mineworkers to be close to the hazardous conditions created by drill and blast activities, and autonomous drill and blast systems can work for longer – there’s no need to factor in breaks, shift changes, and other human workforce necessities. Throw in the enhancements these systems can offer in terms of precision and consistency, and it’s no wonder a host of companies and projects have been launched to drive innovation in this area.

Orica and Epiroc’s semi-automated explosives delivery system

2019 saw the partnering of commercial explosives and blasting systems provider Orica with mining equipment manufacturer Epiroc, who announced a joint effort to develop a semi-automated explosives delivery system.

The partnership sought to combine the expertise of two industry leading companies to enable safer and more productive blasting operations in underground mines. The two companies said there was a growing demand for innovations in this area as mining companies explore for increasingly deeper and more remote ore bodies, which present more hazardous and challenging conditions.

Orica and Epiroc unveiled their prototype for a “first-of-its-kind” explosives delivery system in November 2020. Built on the foundation of Epiroc’s Boomer M2 carrier and integrated with Orica’s latest explosives technology, Avatel is a twin boom, semi-autonomous and fully mechanised development charging system. It allows a single operator to complete the entire charging cycle from inside Epiroc’s enclosed Roll-Over Protection Structure and Falling Object Protective Structure certified cabin.

Trials of Avatel will take place throughout 2021, with the first commercially available systems expected to enter service by the end of the year.

Newcrest test drill and blast technology in New South Wales

Australia-based Newcrest Mining’s Cadia Valley underground mine in New South Wales was the site of a 30-day trial for new drill and blast systems from MacLean Engineering and Orica in June 2020.

The trial provided the opportunity to test new technology from MacLean’s secondary break drill and blast system, Automated Explosive Charger, and Orica’s wireless blasting system, WebGen 100, in an isolated area.

Oversized rocks that either block the flow of material into a draw point or are too large to pass through the jaws of the underground primary crusher can often be dealt with by preparation loaders or rock breakers, but they can also require explosives – meaning workers need to access the area to wire up each explosive being used. These are known as secondary break activities. 

MacLean’s secondary break drill and blast system removes workers from these secondary break activities altogether, with the company developing a prototype “bolt on” piece of equipment that can be attached to existing secondary break drill rigs.

This Auto Explosive Loader can drill a hole in a rock and push the wireless explosive inside, without the operator ever leaving the drill rig’s cab. The operator can then remove the drill rig and leave the area, remotely detonating the explosive using a wireless system developed by Orica.

Cadia Valley acting general manager Aaron Brannigan said the trials were successful: “The trial has demonstrated the opportunity for significant safety benefits, through eliminating human exposure to the major hazards associated with secondary break activities.”

CEA-Leti and Davey Bickford Enaex’s R&D partnership

French Government-backed technological research organisation CEA-Leti extended its R&D partnership with blasting solutions provider Davey Bickford Eneax for another three years in November 2020. The collaboration builds on recent success in developing an electronic initiation system without using surface wire – an innovation the partners said could bring increased safety, flexibility, and productivity to blasting activities.

That system consists of Davey Bickford Enaex’s DaveyTronic electronic detonators with bi-directional radio modules placed on the surface of a mining pit. The wireless network communicates with a digital blasting system located a few kilometres away from the blast area, and is controlled by a wireless communication protocol developed to ensure the safe, reliable, and synchronised operation of hundreds of explosives in open pit mines.

The system was tested at an active mine in the Antofagasta region in Chile, where 185 detonators were programmed and fired with two-way wireless capabilities. The two-way communication system means that, from programming to firing, the detonator can relay information back to the operator and provide information as well as identify potential misfires.

BHP Mitsubishi Alliance’s record-breaking electronic blast

BHP Mitsubishi Alliance’s Caval Ridge mine in the Bowen Basin, Australia, took the title of the world’s largest electronic blast in late 2019, with the blasting completed using explosives manufacture Dyno Nobel’s Digishot technology. The blast involved a combination of four related blast patterns using over 8,000 detonators set up in a fully digitised system. Caval Ridge drill and blast superintendent Dallas Gostelow said the electronic system brought significant safety, efficiency, and cost improvements.

“Timings for the detonators are fully programmable and each blast hole is physically connected to the surface by a wire, but the system is less complicated and fully digitised, which means higher fidelity of tie-in to reduce misfire potential,” Gostelow said.

The blast followed a partnership between BHP and Dyno Nobel in 2019, with Dyno Nobel pledging to invest $25m over five years to pursue innovations that would directly benefit BHP’s mining operations. Dyno Nobel moved to undertake research and development work with input from BHP and a view to focus investment in areas with the greatest potential impact – one of these areas being blasting.