DOWNLOAD THE MINING EXECUTIVE APP NOW
"Global Mining Descisions in Your Palms"
“We’ve not had a single incident caused by an autonomous machine. And in fact, the autonomous machines have prevented what may have been more serious incidents had they been conventionally operated.”
Clayton Sanders ,
Head Of Autonomous Drilling,
On a dusty mine road high in the Andes Mountains, a monstrous truck the size of a house rumbles past with its load of 300 tons of ore. Glancing up through the blinding Andean sunlight, the observer struggles to catch a glimpse of the driver in the cabin. That’s because there isn’t one. The machines have taken over the mine. At Quellaveco, Anglo American’s latest copper mine, the mining multinational is presenting a vision of what mining will look like in the future.
Built in Moquegua at a cost of approximately USD 5.5 billion, the mine is expected to produce around 300 000 metric tons annually of copper (plus molybdenum) over the next decade, consolidating Peru’s position as the second largest supplier of the red metal behind neighboring Chile.
One of the largest copper deposits on the planet, the new mine is expected to continue churning out metals for decades to come.
Following a preprogrammed route, the twenty-eight driverless trucks patrol the pit, queueing up to receive blasted ore or waste from the power shovel and then hauling it to the primary crusher or stockpiles, as required. When they meet each other or another vehicle en route, they stop while they work out who has right of way. Epiroc is playing its part with six autonomous Pit Viper drill rigs. Standing almost twenty meters high when in position, the vehicles automatically trundle into place to a series of blast holes.
Quellaveco is far from the first mine to introduce autonomous vehicles. From Australia to Chile, mining companies are racing to introduce new technologies into their operations, to improve productivity, safety and working conditions for employees. But it will be the first greenfield mine project to implement the technology in its initial design.
Safety is one of the major gains of autonomous haulage and drilling. Not only are workers kept out of harm’s way, but the machines are programmed to be much more cautious than human operators would be.
Autonomous vehicles have also proved more productive than conventional machines, maintaining a regular pace throughout the day. In addition, the Pit Viper rigs have proved more accurate than human operators, drilling all holes within 50 centimeters of the location specified in their preprogrammed drill pattern and to the specified length. Accuracy with conventional rigs can be more like 0.8 – 1.2 meters.
This precision is crucial for ensuring that explosives are properly distributed throughout the rock to obtain the correct fragmentation. This, in turn, facilitates the whole mining process, from how quickly rock can be shoveled, its safe distribution in the trucks, and how efficiently it can be pummeled into powder in the crusher.
“It’s critically important to the process,” explains Sanders. But running a digital mine brings new challenges for Anglo-American mine engineers. To stay in contact with dozens of autonomous vehicles while they move around the pit means ensuring that sufficient broadband spectrum is available in all parts of the operation and at all times.
That can be difficult given the mine’s mind-boggling topography, with mine fronts spread over several stories along a sinuous mountain ravine, explains Drill and Blast Superintendent Akemi Lucero. Initially, given the tight spaces in which they were operating, the system required one trailer within a hundred meters of each rig or risk the equipment grinding to a halt several times each shift. But adopting a stronger network technology, the engineers were able to largely eliminate the stoppages and significantly increase productivity.
“I think that this has been a learning experience for Epiroc too, as the support they have provided is different in each operation,” says Lucero. Another major challenge is the dust. Lifted in plumes by each gust of wind and passing vehicle, the fine powder quickly accumulates in a thick coat on every surface, including the dozens of sensors distributed throughout the mine.