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The use of technology in mining has been instrumental in increasing mine productivity and improving the safety of mineworkers. From the 20th to the 21st century, technological advances and utilization of machinery in the mining industry marked the advent of significant workforce changes in many countries. Unskilled labor was replaced with skilled, educated labor. The use of precision-engineered high-technology, from hardware such as drilling-rigs and ventilation systems, to wireless sensor networks used to monitor underground air quality, has now become the norm.
The application of such mechanized systems means it is possible to integrate the operation and control of various aspects of a mine’s activities using artificial intelligence. This includes the trucks used to haul the ore, the drills cutting and sampling the deposit and the computers modeling orebody shape and grade.
Autonomous machines are now being used by many mining companies (including Rio Tinto, Glencore and, BHP) to improve productivity and safety and to reduce costs.
At Rio Tinto’s Pilbara iron ore operations in Australia, the largest fleet of driverless trucks in the mining industry is used; comprised of 130 vehicles in their Autonomous Haulage System (AHS). Controlled from their Operations Centre in Perth (1500km away from the mine), the fleet as of 2018, has hauled more than one billion tonnes of ore. It relies on global positioning system (GPS) technology to coordinate the vehicles.
As of 2016, the automated fleet had resulted in a 13% reduction in load and haul operating costs. It has removed the risks associated with manually-operated equipment and, between 2008 and 2016, outperformed the manned fleet by 14%. The trucks can operate 24 hours a day year-round and need only be stopped for refueling and maintenance.
The Operations Centre in Perth acts as a central hub for not only the AHS but also a series of seven Autonomous Drill Systems (ADS). The ADS are located throughout Rio Tinto’s mines in the region. There also is an autonomous train that transports iron ore 280km from the Pilbara region to the Rio Tinto owned and operated port at Cape Lambert.
The trains transporting iron ore from the mine to the coast, when manned, would need to stop three times for drivers to change at the end of each shift. This adds an hour onto the journey and slows the network down. An automated train does not need to stop, save for when it is at level crossings or a terminus.
A train controller at the Perth Operations Centre sets the course at the start of the journey, but on-board computers and computers at the Operations Centre takeover following this. There is also a network of computers that keep the train within the speed limit and can stop it if obstacles are detected.
In addition to this, the London-based multinational has developed RTVis™, a subsurface 3D imaging tool. Real-time data is collated by the system and viewed and evaluated by analysts enabling more accurate targeting of high-grade ore by drilling and blasting. This allows faster decisions to be made, improving operational efficiency.
Automation can improve safety, as workers are no longer required to operate heavy machinery or be transported for fly-in fly-out (FIFO) work rosters. The machines can run continuously with no reliance on shift-changes.
Human exposure to the machinery is done in controlled environments when required, such as for maintenance. Additionally, the reduction of human activity in underground mines means that workers are not exposed to high temperatures or hazardous heavy-metal laden dust and fumes.
The main benefits of automation are increased productivity, more sustainable operations, and a safer workforce. The major downside of automation is that the more work that is done by machines, the less there is to be done by humans. Fewer workers are required to operate such autonomous vehicles or oversee the control network of mining operations, and this represents another considerable cost-saving benefit to a mining company.
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