Automation in a cave mining environment

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SRK News | Issue 56Caving

Iouri Iakovlev, Engineering Consultant 

     

In general, automation is most effectively applied to repetitive tasks, such as production loading and trucking. The significant presence of these highly repetitive tasks in a cave mining environment make automation particularly attractive.

The increasing automation of mining equipment is the natural evolution of basic tele-remote operation. The primary benefit of tele-remote mining is in the safety and comfort for the equipment operator, having been removed from the seat. Historically, a tele-remote operator would be located at the mine site, near the machine being operated. However, recent improvements in communications bandwidth allow operators to be located wherever there is a good internet connection.

A remaining challenge for automation technology in the production process is automated bucket loading. Muck piles are not homogenous; subtle variations in rock size, compaction, and brow position mean that the optimum technique for filling the bucket will differ with every cycle. Although bucket filling algorithms are improving, in most applications, the highest productivity (and lowest cost per tonne) is currently thought to be achieved when the operator intervenes to load the bucket.

There is little actual saving in labour costs as a result of automation allowing one person to operate several machines. The reality is that the automated mine will require the same labour, more-or-less, albeit with different skills, and deployed in areas of technical support rather than in operations.

The true advantages provided by automation are more subtle.

Consistent, careful operation

An automated machine will be operated far more carefully than a human operator. It will operate within the designed parameters -- it won’t hit the wall or ride the brakes or change into reverse while moving forwards.

Continued operation during shift and blasting breaks

In an automated mine, the operator is located on the surface, and can keep the machines working during firing time. Hot seat changes happen steps from the mine parking lot and keep the machines working during shift change.

Data collection

The automation infrastructure can also be used to capture operating data such as the ore source and destination. This is particularly useful as draw point management is a critical driver of an efficient production plan and effective control of the caving.

Implementing an automated system is most effective when it is considered before the mine is built, allowing a suitable design and the right equipment to be specified. Automation can also be implemented in an existing operating mine but some compromise is typically required. Pushback from personnel may be encountered making automation both more difficult and perhaps ultimately less effective.

It is valuable to consider automation at the PFS/FS level so mine infrastructure can be designed to accommodate automation. The layout of the extraction level and design of ore-handling system is critical with the overall strategy for effective and efficient isolation of automated zones an important factor. 

The technology for autonomous underground production is available and appropriate for consideration. The opportunities and risk for autonomous haulage system are largely associated with the efficacy of its implementation rather than with the technology itself. 

Successful implementation of automation requires effective planning and organisation. The distraction of the day-to-day can impact this process at operating mines. Enthusiastic leadership and effective change management are essential. It has been said that the journey to automation can be just as rewarding as the automation itself.

Iouri Iakovlev: iiakovlev@srk.com

SRK Worldwide