Mining’s robotic future

As the search for higher-grade ore continues, the mines of the future will inevitably be more remote and much deeper - and therefore riskier for humans. How can automation help ensure jobs can get done?


contact-Nicole Lyons

Nicole Lyons

Head of Marketing at Axora

The mining industry is currently facing a critical challenge: declining ore grades. As the search for higher-grade ore continues, the mines of the future will inevitably be more remote and much deeper than those of today. But deeper mines also mean hot working environments – the temperature rises by up to 25 degrees Celsius for every kilometre you dig under the earth’s surface and pressure rises as well. Working conditions like these are very hostile. In such a scenario, mining will increasingly depend on automation, removing humans from these areas and replacing them with machines that can cope.

This isn’t a distant possibility, in fact, automation is rapidly evolving to become smarter and more intelligent. Analysts agree that even in mining, traditionally a labour-intensive industry, more and more tasks can now be performed with the help of automated systems and robotic technologies.

The advantages are clear – without the need for heating, cooling and large ventilation fans, power use is dramatically cut. It will make mining safer and more sustainable. Many see robotics as a portal that leads to imagining a post-mining future – where extraction of minerals resembles something as gentle and benign as farming. And these technologies are being invented right now.

But when we think of where we can be in the future, it is important to revisit where we have been in the past.

A short drive away from the Germany-Czech border lies the town of Freiberg. It has an 800-year-old connection with mining. It is also home to one of the world’s oldest mining universities – Freiberg University of Mining and Technology (set up in 1765). Surrounded by hills that were mined in the middle ages, the university has a test mine of its own. (The only university in Europe with such a facility). “This is our playground,” says Professor Bernhard Jung who chairs the Virtual Reality and Multimedia group and along with his team is scripting an exciting future for mining. A future that includes internet-enabled mines, highly developed intelligent automation and robots that can get the job done for us. “It is a vision of the future – a manless mine – mines with no human workers. Just robots.”

It’s important to mention here that “manless” doesn’t literally mean replacing the entire workforce. Experts agree that doing that won’t be possible or indeed feasible.

Automation removes humans from harm's way and creates jobs that are more technical in nature. Of course, it isn't an easy transition because of concerns around employment. "We design technologies that are making mining safer and more sustainable. We know that transitioning to technologies that don't need as many people isn't easy, but we want our workforce to do the jobs that are safer and more skilled. We want a healthier environment and the jobs that are lost can be recast into safer and more technical ones," says Prof Jung.

The business case is quite obvious. Underground mining requires a lot of infrastructure. Drilling, excavation, use of heavy equipment, other machinery and most importantly human workers – in what is essentially a hostile environment. At depths of 3000 meters or beyond, the temperature rises to 40-50 degrees Celsius (or hotter). It is a harsh environment for humans and would need massive investment for cooling and air supply. “From a safety perspective too, this is a disaster. Robots, on the other hand, can be built to cope in these conditions,” says Prof Jung.

What kind of robots? The department has been working on prototypes. They’ve also tested their robots in the now disused mine that the university has access to. Meet Alexander and Julius. “The first robot was built to monitor and survey the mines. The second robot also had a manipulator arm and a hand that resembles a human hand. The idea is that this robot can be an assistant to human workers – taking measurements, lifting heavy loads, navigating in the dark and opening door handles,” explains Prof. Jung.

The names of the robots were selected with care. Alexander Humboldt was a legendary 19th-century German naturalist pioneer and an alumnus of the university. Julius is named after Julius Weisbach again, a 19th-century German mathematician, whose work found significant application in the mining industry.

But robots cannot work in a vacuum. They are the products of a continuing evolution in automation.

Mining is going through a similar transition from manual, to operator guided, to partially automated systems, to those that require limited human intervention, and eventually, to systems that require limited human involvement.

“If you want to compare, Amazon warehouses are a great example. They used to be traditional warehouses. With optimised plans, they became increasingly automated. People were following what the computer was telling them and the next step was to replace them with robots. For a while, people work alongside computers and robots and at some point, there are only machines,” says Prof Jung.

(This is an extreme example that won’t work for mining; but explains the value proposition of automation.)

Currently, technologies like driverless vehicles are running on automated systems at mines in Australia’s Pilbara region for example. The future isn’t that far away from where mining robots will be deployed for all sorts of tasks – to carry out drill and blast, conduct surveys, going down shafts and using sensors to measure things in hostile or inaccessible areas. “Another task we want robots to do is to generate 3D scans during drill and blast. Immediately after a blast in conducted, humans cannot go close to the site. But the robots can be sent to record data. With the help of that data we can find out how successful the blast was, what kind of processing will be needed, how much ore can we expect, etcetera.” There are other exciting applications as well.

“Mines of the future will be very different – they will have a low ecological impact. If you have a gold or silver vein, for example. It is unviable to build a massive infrastructure to extract the ore. Instead, scientists are looking at developing a small robotic mole to fetch the ore by digging underneath in a targeted and controlled way. Once the ore has been extracted, there is only a small hole in the ground left behind,” says Prof. Jung.

From mind-blowing possibilities of the future to much immediately achievable examples of automation and robotics engineering, the opportunities haven’t gone unnoticed. 73 per cent of those who took part in a survey by Perth-based State of Play said that robotics and automation will be the biggest impacting technologies in mining over the next 15 years. Investment in this area is also booming. According to a different report, the mining automation market is expected to grow from $ 2.22 Billion in 2017 to reach $ 3.29 Billion by 2023.

According to AT Kearney’s analysis, the benefits of sustainability initiatives in mining are three-fold: economic, environmental and social.

Automation has economic advantages because it drives operational excellence and brings cost down. It has an environmental one because it can lead to reduction in the use of valuable resources like land and water. And it has social benefits too because it contributes towards better health and safety standards at a mine site and improves the quality of life for communities that live close to a mine site.

Prof Jung warns that the digitalisation, connectivity and the internet is the backbone of all automation. “There are two kinds of mines. Those with internet and those without. Without the internet, none of these processes are possible,” he says.

But things are rapidly changing – faster internet and communication are enabling huge changes in underground mining. New technologies are taking mining towards a very different future and whether you like them or not, automation and robots are coming.

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in sustainability series. For further articles, valuable insights and a look into sustainability solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here

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