Automation and robotics spark mining safety and sustainability evolution

Specially engineered solutions utilizing automation and robotics are leading the charge towards greener and more connected mines.

   Authors

Marcos hillal

Marcos Hillal
Global Product Line Manager, Mining Automation, ABB 

Jan nyqvist Jan Nyqvist
Global Product Manager, Underground Mining Automation, ABB

  

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Initially published in International Mining Engineer – May 2024

The mining industry is on an upward trajectory as its digital transformation journey continues. Increasing pressures on the industry to improve worker safety and boost productivity while reducing energy consumption and environmental impact have created a pressing need to adapt existing processes and operations, driving the evolution of mining towards an automated and electric future.

Advancements in automation and robotics are steering the future of mining and enabling safer and more efficient processes with a more considered impact on the environment. 

Contributing to avoid risk

Safety is paramount in mining. Traditionally relying heavily on manual labor, mining has transformed with the implementation of automation and robotics to shoulder the heavy lifting. This has had a significant impact on the safety and overall well-being of miners.

One of the remaining processes relying on manual work is the deployment of explosive charges within the rockface. Although blasting schedules may vary, from just once to multiple times in a day, each round may contain up to ten blasts. Despite it being a controlled process, the physical exertion of drilling holes and inserting explosives and primers can take its toll on the skilled people carrying out these tasks. Combined with the dangers associated with the risk of falling rocks, debris and dust, this process presents hazards that can be eliminated through the application of automation and robotics.

ABB, in partnership with Boliden and LKAB, and explosive suppliers Forcit and Kimit, are piloting automated robotic explosive charging technology as a pilot solution engineered to combat this challenge. Designed to remove people from the unprotected area around the rock face during charging sequences, the robotic blasting system automatically scans the face to detect boreholes. The system then calculates how to reach all holes, and how to charge them, before deploying the charges. This ensures that the knowledge and expertise of these operators is retained, while enabling them to complete their critical role with less risk.

In tandem, the use of robotics can result in more consistent charging, as the robot will lay the charges in direct accordance with the programed plan. Additionally, employing technologies such as machine learning alongside its ability to record all loading results and provide data insights, means the robotic blasting system will become more efficient over time and ultimately improve the process.

Prioritizing the well-being of workers requires addressing more than the physical risks, but also the biological dangers associated with the hazardous environment of mines. Effective ventilation is key to safety. The inhalation of toxic fumes and gases, or dust caused by disturbed rock, can lead to a myriad of health problems. All mines are therefore equipped with the appropriate ventilation systems. However, with the implementation of automated solutions such as ABB Ventilation Optimizer, processes such as blasting and ventilation can work together to improve efficiency for greater safety.

The next step in mining automation is to incorporate more effective automation technologies in the planning schedule and production control. This automated layer will connect several daily processes, such as ventilation, dewatering, conveying systems, and in-pit crushers, as well as mobile machines, to give the operator a wider view of the process and promptly react to disturbances. Safety elements can then be activated as and when needed.

Prioritizing safety without compromising on sustainability

Initiatives for circular economy within the mining are crucial to the industry’s overall sustainability targets, and robotics and automation technologies are vital components in driving these efforts. Through automated processes, consumption can be optimized and managed more efficiently, from energy to water usage, while also improving waste management.

Robotics can also support wider sustainability efforts. The robotic blasting system not only improves safety but contributes to the increased sustainability of the mining operation. Its precise technology results in more controlled blasts and an increased efficiency in the use of explosive materials, minimizing environmental impact on the surrounding area and generating better rock fragmentation. More effective blasting equates to lower energy usage, increasing the efficiency of the downstream process in the value chain.

The connected mine

Integration of automation, robotics and digital solutions will continue to revolutionize the mining landscape, offering safety, efficiency, and sustainability advantages. By removing workers from the danger zone whilst retaining invaluable skillsets, improving efficiencies, and integrating modern technologies, the mining industry is opening the doors to the next generation of workers.

The automated mine of the future is not such a distant dream anymore. As the mining industry continues to embrace these technologies, it is poised for continued innovation and evolution to greener, more connected operations.

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