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Mining Global conducts an in-depth study about the future of heavy duty drills and the technology that will be revolutionizing mine-site operations in c...

|Sep 3|magazine14 min read

Mining Global conducts an in-depth study about the future of heavy duty drills and the technology that will be revolutionizing mine-site operations in coming years

The mining industry is witnessing a technological boom. The once archaic sector is rapidly upgrading, implementing bigger, faster and smarter equipment. Companies like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, which burst onto the scene with the first driverless trucks, have shown the future of mining leads to automation.

The concept of autonomous drills isn’t new. Mining companies like Caterpillar, Sandvik and others have been configuring the idea for quite some time. It’s what those companies are creating for the future that will really revolutionize mining operations for years to come.


Automated drilling features a remote control system that allows operators to mechanically load and unload the drill rod from the tower frame at a distance and without any physical contact.

Rio Tinto and equipment manufacturer Sandvik have been working together since 2008 to develop technology for its Mine of the Future. The mining company has been testing the technology at its Pilbara operations in Western Australia.

According to Rio’s manager for mining disciplines, Charles McHugh: Atlas Copco and Rio Tinto worked together to ensure that the tasks assigned to the drill could be received and carried out in an automated fashion with the drill operator located in the office. We expect benefits both from a single operator being able to operate multiple drills and from flexible operation, which will be possible between operators and potentially between operating sites.”

He adds, “We are also seeing improved drill utilization and consistency in drill outcomes, providing more accurate information for mine operation.”

One important element of autonomous drilling is the software. Utilizing an internal computer frame, the system relates to the human senses – monitor for eyes and speakers for ear.

Sean Masse, mine manager at New Gold’s New Afton mine explains how their autonomous drilling works: “Our surveyors will draw up a design for how the drilling should go, and then we put that card into the jumbo’s computer, and the jumbo will automatically take the drill-bit to where the hole is supposed to be on that pattern,” says “The only thing the operator does is make sure it’s not going to drill into where there’s a remnant of the last (explosive) round.”

Benefits of automation

The benefits of automation are unanimous.

Everything from single operator, consistency in drilling outcomes, multiple autonomous rig drilling systems and reduction in training time, provide massive amounts of advantages to miners.

Automated drilling is precise. It’s been proven to enhance drill pattern accuracy and improve efficiency of drilling operations. Automated drilling also provides real-time feedback on materials being drilled that can aid in ore sampling and more precise hold loading. By fine tuning the ever varying stream of ore, companies can maximize recovery while utilizing less energy, water and time.

Another added benefit to autonomous drilling is safety. Companies can execute drill plans more safely by keeping operators out from harmful areas as well as reducing human error. Mack Metroliner of Plantman Equipment believes the safety benefits of autonomous drilling are unparalleled.

“The development of semi-autonomous mining equipment has created considerable benefits for operator welfare and safety in other high risk jobs but, until now, not for the manual and labor intensive process of winching drill rods into drill rigs.”

“The manual handling of drill rods is considered one of the most dangerous activities on mine sites,” Plantman said.

Today’s drills are also built to withstand almost any terrain platforms including the harshest environments. Remote locations are no match of automated systems as technology has advanced to allow miners to communicate anywhere in the world.

Next generation mining

As the mining industry continues to expand, the future is leading to integration of autonomous systems. By combining the power of all automated programs, mine sites can grow to become systematic operations with less error, more productivity and less costs.

Caterpillar’s Cat MineStar System, which integrates all automated systems in one, incorporates machine data, tracking and management information that provides an overall “big picture” of the mine site.

The system enables users to implement remote control, semi-autonomous or fully autonomous mining equipment. The Mine Star System makes next-generation mining a reality with systems for drilling, hauling, dozing and underground operations.

Another company integrating autonomous systems is Sandvik. The company’s AutoMine® Product offer automation for both surface and underground mining applications. The system covers fleet automation, single equipment automation, process management including manual production and equipment monitoring for whole equipment.

AutoMine® has the proven capability of operating single heavy-duty machines for surface or underground mines. It can simultaneously monitor movements of a fleet of driverless loaders or trucks hundreds of miles below surface.

Automation continues to reshape one of the world’s most labor-intensive industries and the future lies in integration.