The future of underground automation

News

By Nadav Shemer

RCT, a leading technology solutions provider to the international mining industry says automation is a key factor for all underground mines.

Until recently, the use of automation in underground mines was largely restricted to load-haul-dump (LHD) machines working in isolated, controlled parts of the mine. But all that is changing, according to RCT, a leading supplier of control and automation solutions to the global mining industry.

“Boards and investors are looking at how the mining industry can transition from the traditional mine of four or five years ago to what the mine of the future is going to look like,” says RCT’s global operations manager David Holman.

Safety used to be the main driver for control and automation, but Holman and Ryan Noden, RCT’s global business development manager mining, now see multiple drivers. They say that from an operational perspective, mining companies recognise that automation provides consistency and production efficiency. From a corporate perspective, they note that automation supports ESG (environmental, social and governance) mandates and opportunities for further workforce diversification, removing barriers to entry to some jobs and the industry as a whole. With mining companies starting to implement automation on a wider scale, RCT is seeing an increasing number of requests for assistance in managing the transition from manned operations to widespread autonomous operations.

“A lot of companies are coming to us and asking how they automate their equipment and how we can support their change-management process,” Holman says.

“Mining companies need a structured and well thought-out strategy to successfully automate their mining operation and we are happy to work with companies and develop the right strategy, tailored to their operational outcomes.”

Noden adds that “with the advancements in technology and having the ability to have communication reticulated through the underground environment – it lends itself to applying more automation to other parts of the production cycle.”

While RCT has a long history with automating LHD fleets, it has begun receiving a growing number of requests for automated haulage as well as control solutions for auxiliary equipment such as water trucks and mobile and fixed rock breakers. To address this industry demand, RCT has developed a unique feature called Multi Fleet Select (MFS), which is part of the ControlMaster Automation and Control range. MFS allows equipment operators to control multiple types of machines in the underground mine from a single operator station. RCT has deployed this technology into regions such as Indonesia and the United States.

RCT’s ControlMaster platform is able to achieve this multi-fleet capability due to its technology being fully interoperable. One of RCT’s clients is based in Indonesia and has successfully automated rockbreakers, watercarts and haul trucks operating from a single operator station which has been seamlessly integrated into the mine’s digital network.

Noden says interoperability has become a key driver for all miners and technology suppliers need to offer interoperable solutions that meet this demand by integrating across multiple different operating systems and allow flexibility of choice when miners seek solutions and systems that will deliver business improvements. He says mining companies do not want to be constrained by a single OEM system or ecosystem as they look to add technology to their operation.

Flexibility to add machine automation over a digital mine network, integrated to the mine’s production system of choice, is driving change towards the mine of the future, Noden says.

Mining companies are also looking past conventional mining operational models and exploring how mining operations can be potentially supported via remote operations centres. Challenges exist for operating remotely to the mine, but as technology improves those challenges will be overcome.

“One challenge is the interaction between automated machines and manned equipment. That is where a lot of development focus is, on how do we develop technologies that will allow such interactions to occur,” Noden says.

“Ore bodies are going deeper and to support operational people at these lower levels, mines required adequate ventilation. Having automated battery-electric machines on a secure and reliable network means people aren’t required to be underground.

“This reduces ventilation and energy costs and enables them to continue to go deeper. Traditionally the cost benefit would not be there, but now with the new technologies coming through and automation being part of that, it will become a real possibility.”

Founded in the Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie in 1972, RCT has always kept close to its customer base and their needs. Today it offers a full sales, service, support and spare parts business in numerous locations around the globe including Australia, Latin America, North America, Russia and Africa and works with partners to support regions where it does not have a footprint.

RCT tailor different solutions to different regions based on the needs of the local mine operators. Its ControlMaster Multi-Fleet system, which enables operators to control multiple machines from one operator station, has been well adopted in Indonesia, with increasing demand from the U.S. and Latin America.

Its traffic management system is attracting interest in Chile, where there are many underground block cave mines with large fleets of underground loaders interacting with each other.

The company is in discussions with several clients in North America, South America and Australia to build digital solutions to enable management to view data in real-time and make faster decisions. RCT says it is committed to continue to expand its underground automation technology in line with market expectations and has always focused on supplying solutions that deliver immediate improvements to operations thus improving the return on investment.

This article first appeared in the Mining Magazine Intelligence Automation Report 2021. Access the full report here .

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