The application of robotic technology, although very limited in current mining operations around the world, has far reaching potential for the mining industry. Robotic devices powered by artificial intelligence can perform a range of tasks including drilling, blasting, loading, hauling, bolting mine roofs as well as ore sampling and rescuing trapped miners.
Autonomous Load Haul Dump (LHD) vehicles using robotic technology have been developed by several research centres and technology companies including the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR), Sandvik Mining, and Atlas Copco. Rio Tinto announced in October 2012 to deploy 13 high-tech loading robots at its Argyle underground diamond mine in Western Australia.
Rio Tinto also received two new robots from Germany in May 2013 for its iron ore sample station at Cape Lambert port, which will ensure the iron ore product meets the required specifications. The robots, working in an enclosed environment, carry the samples quickly through the various devices used for determining the sample properties and quality. Samples, in the form of 80kg lots, arrive at volumes as high as 40 per minute.
The use of robots in rescue operations also represents a promising technology. The world's first mine rescue robot ANDROS Wolverine, developed by Remotec for MSHA, was deployed during the Sago mine explosion in 2006. Although unsuccessful, as it became stuck after a few feet, the deployment nevertheless demonstrated the potential of using robots in areas where humans can't even enter.
Internet of Things
Internet of Things, an emerging network technology based on the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and the Internet, can potentially transform the mining industry by creating new ways of maintaining mine safety and productivity.
The technology involves connecting machines, fleet and people with unique identifiers based on radio frequency identification device (RFID) and sensor technologies while allowing them to automatically transfer and receive data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. The IoT platform can not only improve traceability and visibility of the entire mining operation but also enable computers to observe, identify and understand different facets of mining operations without human intervention and to automate and improve the maintenance and operation of machines.
Networking companies such as Cisco are currently working with industry partners to deliver IoT-based solutions specifically meant for the mining industry.
Advanced airborne gravity gradiometer technology for mineral exploration
Exploration for mineral bodies is time-consuming and expensive, making an unsuccessful attempt extremely costly. The University of Western Australia in collaboration with Rio Tinto has developed an advanced gradiometer known as VK1 airborne gravity gradiometer in an attempt to find a solution to exploration challenges. Named after the University's physicist Dr Frank Van Kann, who invented the technology, the device has been 30 years in the making.
The VK1, operated from an aircraft, incorporates technology to measure subtle changes in the Earth's gravity field and uses the data to produce a density map which can be used to identify ore bodies, which are otherwise hard to detect. The device has undergone a series of flight tests and improvements since 2010. The precision improvements offered by the new device are expected to further drive the success in exploration efforts by mining companies.
Airborne gravity gradiometers were developed way back in the 1980s by Bell Aerospace (now Lockheed Martin) and BHP Billiton, and were first used in mining by BHP Billiton which used it to explore for diamond-bearing kimberlite pipes in 1999. Since then they have been used successfully at a number of diamond mines including the Ekati diamond mine in Canada, Abner pipe in Australia, near the Finsch mine as well as a number of iron ore, gold and copper bearing multi-mineral deposits. The Chilean Santo Domingo Sur copper deposit is a good example of a mine discovered with the help of a gravity gradiometer.
3D imaging technologies
3d imaging technologies have transformed the exploration of large mines and continue to hold promise with a number of emerging technologies. Seismic surveys for studying the geology of potential mining areas are not new but applications of 3D imaging technologies has improved the efficacy of these studies greatly. A new technology that has emerged in three dimensional imaging is 3D laser scanning, which helps to capture spatial data using laser light and enables geologists to build 3D geological maps combining the surface mapping data.
3D laser scanning is a relatively new technology for the mining industry despite its application for many years in other fields such as civil engineering, architectural design and forensic investigation. In mining the technology has found uses in the hands of rock engineers, ventilation engineers, safety officers as well as those surveying in dangerous or inaccessible mining environments.
CAE Mining and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have pushed the technology further by incorporating 3D imaging technologies in a Camera that can be used in open pit and underground mining areas to capture three-dimensional images of the environment and topography, eliminating the need for geologists, engineers and surveyors to physically visit the mine. The technology enables design and analysis to be conducted from a remote environment while also not disrupting the production while capturing the imagery.
Analysis of the captured data will further help in exploration, mine scheduling, planning and targeting of drill holes, and so on. Some 3D visualisation and analysis software solutions available in the market include CAE SirovisionTM, Maptek's Vulcan, ARANZ Geo's Leapfrog Geo and Leapfrog Mining, Dassault System's GEOVIA, and Avizo Fire.
Automated and tele-operated drilling solutions can ensure mining personnel safety and improve efficiency during surface drilling operations. A tele-operated drilling solution comprises of an easily installable operator station on a range of mobile platforms connected to the drilling rig wireless network.
The technology allows the operator to carry out drilling from a remote location without entering hazardous areas. The real time video and data communication including all drilling controls and equipment status are displayed continuously on a graphical screen installed at the operator centre with the use of remote-controlled pan/tilt/zoom camera for drilling, rod-handling and tramming controls transmitting real-time images.
Sandvik has developed its AutoMine Surface Drilling solution based on this technology, while Flanders Electric has developed a range of automated and semi automated drilling rigs including ARDVARC One-Touch, ARDVARC Blast Plan, and ARDVARC Auto Propel utilising Advanced Rotary Drill Vector Automated Radio Control technology.
Efficient shaft and tunnel boring system
Mining is being increasingly carried out underground as open pits near the end of their mining life and new ore bodies are increasingly being identified deep underground. Constructing underground mines with the use of conventional shaft and tunnel boring machines, however, has proved to be technically challenging, expensive and sluggish.
The advanced shaft and tunnel boring machines, like the ones developed by Atlas Copco and Aker Wirth in collaboration with Rio Tinto, can dig underground safely, at greater speed and have the potential to reduce the time and cost otherwise taken for constructing underground mines.
Atlas Copco's modular mining machine can cut through extremely hard rock walls and tunnel to more than 10m a day, which is nearly twice the rate achieved through conventional methods. A test trial of this boring machine was scheduled to start at Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC) mine in 2013 but no further progress has been reported to date.
Autonomous haulage systems have been in use to varying degrees for the last five years and are steadily gaining traction as company's investment more time and energy in development.
Rio Tinto, the world's second biggest iron ore producer, began using the Komatsu AHS, the world's first commercial autonomous mining haulage system, for its Pilbara iron ore operation in Australia in December 2008. The miner was operating 19 autonomous 930E Komatsu haul trucks by mid 2013. It also announced in 2011 that it would buy 150 such trucks for its Pilbara operation by 2016. Rio Tinto also plans to introduce the first driverless train in 2014 as part of its AutoHaulTM automated train programme at Pilbara where it currently operates 41 trains on its 1,500km rail network.
In a similar move BHP Billiton, the world's second biggest mining company, has announced plans to deploy a fleet of 12 to 15 automated Caterpillar trucks at its new Jimblebar mine in the Pilbara region. Fortescue Metals Group's Solomon mine in Pilbara will also operate 45 Caterpillar-supplied autonomous trucks by 2015.
Plasma technology for increasing precious metal yields
The use of plasma technology can boost the yield of precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum from complex ores by more than 1,000% compared to conventional metallurgical processes.
Toss Plasma Technologies (TPT), a company based in the US, has developed a new radio frequency (RF) plasma technology by which complex ores such as zinc, nickel, copper and lead are heated applying ultra-high temperatures of between 8,000-12,000 degrees Celsius to break down the ore structure and free up the latent precious materials contained therein for recovery and purification using conventional techniques.
In a recent test of the new radio frequency plasma technology conducted by the company on Myanmar tungsten ore samples, the amount of gold yielded was about 1,500% more than what could be recovered through traditional methods.
Mining companies normally either dispose tailings as waste or use them as substitutes for other chemical processes although some mineral content, uneconomical to recover, is still left in the tailings. However, increasingly rare minerals such as copper are highly valued and mineral recovery from tailings could become economically viable in the future. Brazilian mining company Vale is developing a promising innovative technology in collaboration with the University of São Paulo to recover copper mineral from the tailings using micro-organisms, which if extended to other minerals, would transform the handling of tailings and boost mineral production. The path breaking technology would be immensely helpful in the production of rare minerals such as copper, whose pure form occurs in just 1% per tonne of ore extracted.
Vale deposits tailings waste from its Sossego copper mine in Northern Brazil at a nearby lake. The tailings disposal facility is estimated to contain approximately 90 million tonnes of waste containing 0.07% of copper which, if recovered, can provide additional revenue for the company. Recovering mineral from the residual waste will also help fund part of the waste treatment expenses.
The R$15m ($6.6m) research project, in which Vale's investment amounts to R$3m ($1.3m), has identified 35 bacteria from the tailings dam near Sossego. The bacteria are being studied in order to discover the right micro-organism which would be suitable for eating the copper present in the tailings. The copper will be extracted from the bacteria and will be reprocessed before sale.
Remote operating and monitoring centres
The adoption of centralised systems for operating, monitoring and controlling the mining or the processing activities from a remote location has been much sought after by mining companies over the last four years in the strive for maximum efficiency, improved safety, decreased variability and better identification of performance issues.
Rio Tinto was the first to adopt such approach by launching its Perth Operations Centre in June 2010 to monitor and control remotely from 1,500km its entire Pilbara operations while synchronising the mining operations with the rail and port systems. Similarly, BHP Billiton opened its Integrated Remote Operations Centre (IROC) in Perth for monitoring and controlling its Pilbara iron ore operation in July 2013.
In March 2014, Rio Tinto opened a Processing Excellence Centre (PEC) in Brisbane to monitor and analyse the processing data in real time from seven of its operations in Mongolia, the United States and Australia with the help of a huge interactive screen. A team of experts in mineral processing from the PEC suggest different solutions for optimising mineral processing to be implemented immediately at these seven sites.