MINE operators and contractors who still see the cost of ICT infrastructure as a roadblock to underground machine guidance needn't be concerned on that front, according to the managing director of innovative Australian company Remote Control Technologies.
Bob Muirhead, who has overseen RCT's development into an international leader in mine remote control and machine guidance technologies, told HighGrade.net the belief that extensive information and communications infrastructure and clunky safety barriers made the transition from remote control of equipment to auto-control too expensive, was false.
RCT has now deployed more than 50 underground loader and truck auto-guidance systems, having initially developed technology that could complement its widely used mine remote control packages. Many mines moved from line-of-sight remote control of equipment to tele-remote control and were then looking to make the switch to auto-guidance, particularly for highly repetitive tasks in confined work spaces where machine damage is a costly problem.
But mine machine guidance systems developed for large-scale underground operations, such as block-caves, effectively had to be re-engineered to suit smaller mines, according to Muirhead.
"What we've seen, and are still seeing, is some fairly sophisticated systems that are essentially being scaled down to co-pilot mode - they're not fully exploiting the potential of the technology. Or they are systems that are designed with a mine-technology step change in mind and require mine infrastructure and other changes to work effectively," he said.
RCT's Control Master Guidance System (CMGS) uses laser sensors and does not require an electronic mine map or other infrastructure. It connects to an existing remote control receiver and provides real-time responsive guidance with any make of machine.
"Our focus is singularly on keeping the machine - any machine - productive and not having unplanned downtime due to damage," Muirhead said.
"Underground guidance systems released onto the market have been very much structured towards high-volume, repetitive infrastructure ... and we're structured towards getting the best out of a machine in any circumstance. So I think that's the differentiation.
"You can send our system into any set of circumstances and optimise the performance of a piece of equipment with relatively low skill capability.
"Imagine going to work each day, you jump in your car and it's totally structured. You can only go one way to the office because the path has been predetermined and the vehicle programmed to complete its task. If the road is blocked, or there is some requirement to go another way, you just have to stop and wait for your path to be reset.
"That doesn't seem a natural fit for the types of mines that we're targeting. Generally ... the stope is available today but not available tomorrow, so therefore you want a system where you can just drive it, full throttle - or not, get the best out of it, it won't bang into things, and then divert it for use somewhere else.
"Or the machine gets to the end of a tunnel and the operator monitoring its progress decides that's not where he wants to be and just re-engages the controls and steers the machine on another course.
"So that's still our thinking on this. We can still very simply add the point-to-point - it's not very hard.
"It still doesn't need any other infrastructure to set the machines up to travel along a pre-determined route in a mine where that is required. But really, we're not yet seeing many of these fully designed rock factories that the industry keeps talking about."
Muirhead said RCT had deployed several of its underground guidance systems at sites outside Australia and saw considerable potential in offshore markets for a system that could be easily run and maintained by low-skilled people, with basic training, and was fully supported by the supplier.
"The way we've developed this [CMGS] is ... if an operator can handle a dysfunctional machine, these systems have to be able to handle them. So they can," he said.
"The operator is intuitive [so] we've had to build that in.
"We've always seen the performance benchmark for the machine on auto-guidance was being able to exceed the performance of a tele-remote operator consistently for the maximum time the machine was available in a day.
"And we've already seen that."
That marker is at 22 hours.