Automation and robotics in mining: Adding safety, productivity and availability

Automation and robotics in mining: Adding safety, productivity and availability

24 February 2017

Applied research, development and technological innovation in automation and robotics constitute one of the pillars for the sustainability of Chilean mining, considering the important benefits that the incorporation of this type of solutions implies.

The “Roadmap for Mining 2015-2035”, prepared by the National High Grade Mining Program based on an open consultation process with different stakeholders in the mining sector.

open consultation process with different industry stakeholders, establishes that the development and incorporation of technology is a critical factor for the sustainability of the sector.

In this sense, it is considered indispensable for Chile to strengthen the incorporation of automation and robotics solutions in the different mining processes, together with developing a greater capacity to generate technologies in this field that can be applied locally, and that can also be adopted in other countries.

Javier Ruiz del Solar, executive director of the Advanced Mining Technology Center (AMTC) of the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences of the University of Chile, agrees that applied research and the adoption of technologies in this field generate benefits in key aspects of mining development.

“In the case of Chile, the greatest needs in this area are at the mine, smelting and refinery operation levels, since it generates very important benefits in safety, productivity and cost reduction,” he explains.

In the area of mine operations, the incorporation of autonomous or semi-autonomous equipment (trucks and loaders, among others) contributes to increasing operational availability. This can be achieved by reducing shift changeover times and also by reducing wear and tear on machine parts, due to the more efficient use of the machine and the permanent control of its functions.

In the case of smelting and refining processes, Del Solar points out that Chilean mining has a key challenge in the application of advanced processes, where automation and robotics solutions are essential to achieve greater safety and efficiency. “Working conditions in smelters are very complex, due to high temperatures and eventual emanations of hazardous gases, among other factors,” says the AMTC executive director.

Advanced Process Control (APC)

Automation solutions for advanced process control (APC) make it possible to analyze plant processes in real time, with the aim of making decisions that result in higher production volume and quality, increased equipment availability and reduced environmental impact, among other benefits.

For example, the mining company Doña Inés de Collahuasi is using Metso’s OCS-4D software platform in lines 1, 2 and 3 of the rougher flotation circuit. From the application of this system, the company reported a 1.93% increase in its ore recovery, along with a decrease in the deviation and variability of the main controlled aspects of the process: the concentrate grade and the tailings grade.

Loading and conveying equipment

The automation of the conveying and loading processes, either in individual equipment or in fleets, allows operators to be located in safe environments while trucks or loaders operate in hazardous areas, with greater production efficiency.

Sandvik’s AutoMine series includes different automation solutions, which consider the operation of trucks and low-profile front-end loaders in subway mining, and DTH and tophammer drilling rigs on surface.

The company saw a 26% increase in productivity in the case of a mining company that automated its entire fleet of front-end loaders and trucks, due to increased travel speed and equipment utilization rates. In addition, the number of trucks needed to move material was reduced from ten manually operated trucks to seven automated trucks.

Finning Caterpillar’s offering in this area includes the Cat Command line of equipment for subway and surface sites, which allows remote maneuvering of loading, hauling and unloading machines. Along with the aforementioned safety benefits, this equipment is able to operate incorporating the characteristics of the terrain and infrastructure where they work.

The above conditions generate greater operating speed and prevent the machine from coming into contact with the mine walls. In this way, damage to the equipment and wear of its components are greatly reduced.

Indicator monitoring 

This type of wireless technology facilitates the remote measurement of indicators such as temperature, pressure and flow in leach heaps, pipelines and installations with complex geometry, among other types of infrastructure.

The development and incorporation of these solutions in a safe, reliable and constant manner requires the application of the worldwide wireless communication protocol ISA 100, developed by The International Society of Automation. This is the case, for example, of the applications developed by Yokogawa, which are used in mining operations worldwide, including Chile.

Particularly, in the wireless and remote measurement system applied to leaching heaps developed by this company, benefits in safety, productivity and cost reduction are achieved, due to the ability to operate at up to five kilometers from the control room; adaptability to various weather and topography conditions; and resistance to temperatures up to 80 degrees Celsius.

Plant control and simulation

The automation of control and simulation activities in plants makes it possible to verify the behavior of these facilities when new technologies or processes are applied, as well as to minimize start-up times and facilitate the training of personnel under high safety standards.

In this area, the ABB Group developed the ABB 800xA control and automation platform, which operates in coordination with simulation software to generate a “virtual plant”, where operating parameters can be tested and the behavior of processes in different scenarios can be reviewed. This solution is currently present in 13 mining operations in Chile, with more than 30 software applications running in them.

Integral Maintenance

Efficiency in maintenance is a critical process in mining operations. In the particular case of SAG and ball mills -which consume an average of 40% of the plant’s energy-, the incorporation of robotized equipment and processes reduces the execution time of these tasks and provides greater productivity in the general operation of the mine.

At the same time, it avoids the work of operators in conditions of high health and safety risk associated with overexertion, possibility of falls, sprains or blows due to sliding material.

In response to this need, Mirs has robotics-based equipment that allows for comprehensive maintenance of these mills, through the removal and retorquing of bolts by means of a high-capacity robotic arm mounted on a traveling carriage that moves around the mill.

Local response

An important challenge for Chilean mining is to strengthen and extend its research, development and innovation capacity to generate local automation and robotics responses with internationalization projections.

To advance towards this goal, in recent years a series of programs and projects have been generated that are contributing to consolidate a specialized ecosystem in this area, whose main objectives are:

Increase the availability and variety of sources of financing and capacity building for suppliers interested in developing applications for local and international medium-scale mining.

Extend communication and cooperation spaces between the public sector, mining companies, research centers and suppliers to facilitate the incorporation of this type of innovation.

Promote interoperability, which allows equipment and systems from different suppliers to work interconnected under the logic of open technologies. Advance in the availability of professionals and technicians capable of working in specialized teams, during the different stages involved in innovation focused on automation and robotics.