Image Credit: Salienko Evgenii/Shutterstock.com
The robots shaping the future of the quarry and mining sector are driven primarily by two factors: cost and safety. These factors are intertwined due to the effect they have on each other. Having a quarry that operates with a high safety record increases efficiency and profit. Having a quarry that minimizes its costs through automation can also increase efficiency and profit. The robots changing the quarry are the natural evolution of these factors; increasing safety whilst mitigating costs.
Extracting raw materials from the earth has never been without risk. Getting at limestone, granite, and sand can be dangerous, but the mining industry continues to invest in automated robots that can extract these materials with minimal human risk. Robotic drills, self-driving ore trucks, and airborne drones are all being tested and introduced in quarries around the globe. Dr. Bernhard Jung of the Freiberg University of Mining and Technology in Germany believes there will be fully automated man-less mines operated by machines in the near future, especially in difficult to reach areas such as the ocean floor.
Making use of robots may be our only chance to ever extract minerals in such areas.
Dr. Bernhard Jung, Talking to NBC News
Self-Driving Mining Vehicles
Self-driving ore-carrying trucks are already used by UK mining giant Rio Tinto in Western Australia. The trucks use a combination of laser sensors, GPS, and radar tracking, all of which allows them to navigate the quarry safely. Similar technologies can be seen in partly autonomous vehicles like Nissan’s Intelligent Mobility and Google’s Self-Drive systems which have built upon the Komatsu designed system. The self-driving trucks stay on the job for 24 hours a day, almost seven days a week, only coming off shift for maintenance checks and repairs. No tired drivers. No need for breaks. No downtime for shift changes.
Volvo and Nvidia also announced a new partnership in June 2019 to develop the next generation of “decision-making engines” for Volvo’s commercial and industrial trucks. Nvidia already has a strong track record in this area having worked with UBER on its Advanced Technologies Group-driven (ATG) truck business and investing in the Chinese self-driving trucking startup, TuSimple. This is an exciting development as the current wave of self-driving trucks operate only in the controlled environments of quarries and commercial ports, and are overseen by human workers.
Having the automation to move raw materials from the quarry also extends to carving it from the ground. The manual stripping and drilling equipment traditionally operated by humans is giving way to automated drill rigs that can make holes in the rock faster and with greater accuracy than manually operated equipment.
Automated Aerial Drones
Drones are already used extensively by military and security organizations to survey areas hazardous to humans. The quarrying industry has taken note of mining drones from companies including Sensefly and Propellor, already being used in site planning. A single automated flight can gather the geometry of the landscape, providing surveys that would ordinarily take days. The application goes further with Dr. Herman Herman of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh claiming that drones can be used to supervise automated mining operations from a great distance.
Quarries of the Future
The extraction industry has been investing seriously in AI and future technology over the past decade. Global giant, Caterpillar was a major sponsor at the 2019 FIRST Robotics World Championship held in Houston, Texas. FIRST is a non-profit organization aimed at advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics for young people. Caterpillar knows that autonomous trucks already have a 20% greater production record then manned vehicles. At the championship event, teams had to design and build a robot able to autonomously navigate a terrain that simulated a sandstorm on Mars. Additionally, the robot had to drop a payload into a secured cargo bay whilst avoiding robots on an opposing team sent to stop it. Caterpillar understands that if school children can design a robot able to navigate hostile terrain with unknown obstacles and safely deliver a payload before returning to base, then the future for robots in quarrying is bright indeed.
Sources and Further Reading