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Of robots and remote controls

By Scott Simpson, Vancouver Sun

May 11,2012

A scramble for low-cost resources, and concern for worker safety, fuels automation innovation.

Back in 2003, the veteran professor of mining at the University of British Columbia began telling students to prepare for a ground-shaking transition into automated mining equipment: robots. Think driverless dump trucks, remote-operated drilling vehicles, and other craft to do difficult or dangerous work underground.
"It took about three or four years for the students to accept that this is their future," Meech said. "Many of the students asked 'Why do we have to know about robots? That's what the electrical and mechanical experts should be spending their time on.'
"The way I approached it with them was to say, 'Well, yes, the installation of these facilities and the maintenance of equipment will be done by electrical and mechanical people, but mining engineers have to understand the principles behind this equipment and how it all coordinates together. Within a few years you are going to be responsible for a fleet of trucks that are fully robotic.' "
Meech emphasized that this transition isn't about replacing people. Demand for mining engineers and skilled labour has skyrocketed and mining companies around the world anticipate a worker shortage.
"I insist that my students do not justify automation based on labour savings even though that is a secondary benefit," Meech said. Instead, worker safety is "the No. 1 reason" for automation.
"Going underground is a dangerous occupation and if we can set up systems where we can operate the equipment remotely from surface, then we've removed the miner from the danger."
There are similar advantages for the open-pit mines that typify operations in B.C.
"A truck driver in an open pit mine ... at the start of a shift might be wide awake, but what about the end of 12 hours of driving back and forth between Point A and Point B? Every year, three or four truck drivers are killed because they've fallen asleep or driven over the side. It's a dangerous occupation."
Robot truck movements are so consistent that operators must make minute variations in the path they follow, otherwise they'd wear ruts into roads around the mine.
"Productivity can go up," Meech said. "You don't need to have a lunch break. You don't need to have coffee breaks. You can immediately gain two to three hours a day in productivity on that equipment."
There's another reason for the transition. The quality of ore at older mines tends to decline as operations shift from the original ore body. That means mine operators need to become more efficient if they wish to remain profitable.
A typical porphyry deposit could have a copper "grade" of 0.4 per cent to one per cent copper per tonne of ore body. Recently at Highland Valley Copper near Kamloops, Teck Resources was mining ore that had as little as 0.11 per cent copper while dealing with some geotechnical issues at a higher-grade area of its pits.
"What we are seeing in the industry are real challenges associated with the falling ore grades [at] existing operations and existing mines - and therefore, having to move with larger and larger equipment to get the same yield," said David Willick, North American lead for GE mining solutions group.
"Also, exploration and new discoveries of ore zones are typically in fairly nasty places on Earth with little to no existing infrastructure. The new frontier in the north, with an absence of infrastructure - requirements for power and water solutions - is definitely a trend."
One of GE's innovations is to build hybrid mining trucks and locomotives that have dynamic braking systems, which harvest the energy involved in braking a vehicle and use it to recharge the battery that runs it.
That's particularly valuable in remote locations that lack a link to a utility's electrical grid, Willick said.
GE works with a number of B.C. mine operators, including Taseko Mines and Teck Resources, to upgrade their ore milling operations.
Viorol Nica, GE motors sales manager for B.C., noted that Highland Valley has serial numbers "1" and "2" on its grinding mill machines.
"Teck has announced another 20 years life of the mine and they're spending over half-a-billion dollars to improve the facilities and [the money is] specifically directed to process efficiency improvement," Nica said.
"Highland Valley Copper, as far as I know, has one of the most efficient operations in the world. I don't know any other mine that processes lower grade ores than Highland Valley right now."
Drilling technology is also adapting.
Teck president and CEO Don Lindsay recalls his early days as a blasting foreman at an iron mine in Labrador, where setting drill holes to maximize the breaking of rock was more art than science.
"I would be up there in a snowstorm trying to find a wooden peg in the [rock], and signalling the drill operator who could barely see me through the screen [of the drill vehicle]. If we got it close enough, 'close enough' could be off by this much," Lindsay said, holding his hands about a metre apart.
Today at Highland Valley, Teck uses GPS or global positioning satellite data for precise blast hole placement. The better the placement of explosives, the smaller the bits of rock left after the ensuing explosion, which saves time when hauling the broken material away for processing, Lindsay said.
At the exploration level, British Columbia has invested almost $50 million since 2005 to map out the province's mineral resources.
Geoscience B.C. has undertaken "airborne gravity" and "airborne electromagnetic" surveys via helicopter to enhance earlier, less detailed research by provincial and federal geologists, to help prospectors and exploration companies understand what's under the surface across vast swaths of the province.
The non-profit organization's research is in the public domain and it has vaulted B.C. into the ranks of the most competitive mining jurisdictions when it comes to attracting exploration investment.
"It's a huge amount of risk involved in exploration. Mineral deposits are so small when you're talking about the area of the province that we're exploring in," said Geoscience B.C. president Lyn Anglin. "To find a deposit is a very, very rare thing."
For an organization like Geoscience B.C. to do this kind of initial work is like building a new road into an area to stimulate economic development in that area. No one company would build the road but if the road gets built, then a lot of economic activity may develop from that.
"No exploration company would do this kind of survey just on spec, at least not in British Columbia."