The Automated Future of the Mining Industry
While automation technology has been transforming numerous industries for decades, the mining sector has only recently begun to leverage robotics. As mining companies face increasing pressure to improve productivity, reduce costs, and enhance worker safety, the use of mining robots has become increasingly prevalent. From autonomous trucks to remote-controlled drilling machines, mining robots are changing the face of this critical industry.
In this article, we will explore the reasons why mining companies are automating, the benefits of using mining robots, applications that are well-suited for automation, and the most common types of robots used in the industry.
Why the Mining Industry is Automating
A Historical Reluctance to Automate
The mining sector has historically shied away from automation due to its reliance on known and dependable technologies. Additionally, mining companies struggled to implement automation technologies in the past.
Mining operations are massive in scale–both in physical size and operational complexity. Transforming these companies can be an enormous undertaking. Such a transformation typically requires three components:
- Technology implementation
- Adapting existing operations
- Transforming mining culture and capabilities
Implementing the required technology without adapting existing operations and changing the culture won’t be enough. However, mining companies are finding success with more OEMs investing in automation technology for the mining industry.
This success brings case studies mining companies can reference for their own automation projects. Additionally, OEMs often consult companies on integrating automation into their existing operations and transforming their company culture to embrace automation.
Automation Solves Today’s Mining Challenges
In addition to the increased acceptance and accessibility of automation solutions, the mining industry faces several challenges that are now driving the adoption of automation technology. These primary challenges include:
- Safety issues,
- Environmental impacts,
- Labor shortages.
Safety Issues in Mining
Safety for workers has always been a challenge for the mining sector. Mining is a hazardous industry, with workers exposed to various risks. Common hazards include:
- Physical hazards – cave-ins, rock falls, explosions, hearing damage, vehicle crashes, drowning, vibration, and other physical traumas
- Biological hazards – exposure to poisonous fumes, dust, various solvents used for mineral separation, and heavy metals
- Ergonomic hazards – cumulative trauma due to heavy lifting and repetitive movements, overexposure to heat or cold temperatures, and musculoskeletal injuries associated with mining tasks
A Growing Demand for Sustainability
The mining industry is also facing pressure from global leaders to reduce its environmental impact. The primary sources of emissions generated by the mining sector include:
- Energy consumption,
- Processing and refining,
- Land use change.
Mining requires considerable energy to power equipment and machinery, as well as for heating, ventilation, and lighting. This energy is often generated from fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).
The mining industry relies heavily on transportation to move equipment, materials, and products. This transportation generates emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in trucks, ships, and other vehicles.
Extracting and processing minerals and metals can also generate significant emissions, particularly during the refining stage. For example, smelting metal ores typically involves high temperatures and chemical reactions that release greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
Mining can also contribute to emissions through land use change, such as deforestation, soil degradation, and habitat destruction. These activities can release carbon stored in trees and soil, as well as disrupt local ecosystems.
A Skilled Labor Shortage
Finally, the mining industry is facing a shortage of skilled labor, which can make it challenging to maintain operations and keep up with demand. A McKinsey report noted that 42% of respondents would not consider a career in the mining sector. This concerning statistic reflects the increasing challenge of attracting labor for mining operations.
Overall, mining companies are facing challenges from many angles that hinder their ability to deliver results. As such, the mining sector is increasingly looking towards automation as a way to remain competitive and meet the demands of an industry steeped in the middle of labor, technological, and geopolitical headwinds.
Benefits of Automating in Mining
The challenges mining companies face can seem massive in scope. However, automation can help companies begin to resolve these issues.
One of the most significant benefits of automation in the mining industry is improved safety. Direct exposure to mining processes and equipment operations pose risks to miners. By automating a process, companies directly reduce the risk of injury to their operators.
Mining operations can be dangerous, and automation can help remove human workers from hazardous work areas, reducing the risk of accidents and fatalities.
In addition, automated mining equipment can monitor equipment performance and detect potential problems, helping prevent breakdowns that lead to accidents.
Environmental Concerns and Sustainability
Automation can also contribute to a more sustainable mining industry. By optimizing consumption and reducing environmental impact, automation can help increase the sustainability of mining operations.
For example, automated equipment can optimize energy use. Energy consumption emits considerable amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which political leaders are keen to limit.
Automation can help reduce water consumption. Excessive water displacement leads to a host of environmental issues such as sinkholes and negative impacts on local wildlife. Both examples here can lead to infrastructural damage and dire effects on people, animals, and fauna.
As mining is placed under more scrutiny, it’s important to consider how automation can help the industry meet regulatory requirements for environmental protection and sustainability.
Closing the Labor Gap
As the industry faces an aging workforce and difficulty attracting new talent, automation can help fill the gaps. Automated equipment can perform tasks that would otherwise require human labor.
Robots can free up workers for other roles that require more advanced skills, such as repair, planning, operations, and other advancement opportunities for high performers.
This can help reduce labor costs and improve productivity, making the mining industry more competitive in the long term.
Standard Mining Applications for Automation
The mining industry has adopted automation technology in various applications, including:
- Drilling and Blasting
The types of robots used in these applications vary depending on the specific task and the mining operation's needs. Mining robots are unique in that many come in semi and fully autonomous models or feature switchable modes. Mining robots are typically purpose-built due to the specific requirements for mining applications. However, some commonly seen robot types in the mining industry include autonomous trucks, drilling robots, and robotic conveyor systems.
Hauling is a key task in mining. Hauling is required to move material from the pit to be unloaded for further processing. Typically, this is handled by human operators driving large haul trucks. However, mining companies find autonomous trucks to be valuable for hauling applications.
Autonomous haulers are commonly used in open-pit mining operations, where they can transport ore and waste material without the need for human drivers. Autonomous units look almost identical to manual haul trucks. Automated units feature a suite of sensors for path planning, obstacle avoidance, and GPS tracking. Multiple haulers can work together as a connected fleet with fleet management systems.
Often referred to as Autonomous Haulage Systems (AHS) these trucks use a combination of sensors and GPS technology to navigate the mining site and transport material safely and efficiently. Compared to human drivers, autonomous trucks can operate 24/7, reduce the risk of accidents, and optimize routes to minimize fuel consumption and increase productivity.
Autonomous haulers help mining companies increase safety, reduce fuel consumption and emissions, increase productivity, and face labor shortages.
Drilling and Blasting
Drilling robots are used in underground mining operations to drill holes for blasting or exploration. Drilling robots commonly take the form of rovers and full-scale blasting rigs. This structure enables sufficient mobility and drilling power.
Autonomous drilling and blasting platforms are equipped with a suite of sensors. GPS and vision systems aid in navigation and path planning. Sophisticated measurement tools enable these systems to report back on metrics like blast fragmentation. This data is reported back to a control system that enables operators to optimize historical blast data across the entire fleet.
These robots can operate in areas that may be too dangerous or difficult for human operators to reach, such as narrow tunnels or unstable rock formations. Drilling robots can also improve drilling accuracy and speed, reducing waste and increasing productivity.
Drilling robots enable companies to increase worker safety, productivity, and reduce waste, helping mining companies resolve several challenges they face today.
Robots are increasingly being used in the mining industry for exploration tasks, such as mapping and prospecting. Rover-type robots, drones, and submarine robots are commonly deployed for these tasks.
These robots are equipped with sensors and cameras that can detect geological features and analyze soil samples. They can operate in remote and hazardous locations that are difficult for human explorers to access, such as underground tunnels, deep sea beds, and polar regions.
Exploration can be costly, dangerous, and introduce negative environmental impacts when done using traditional methods.
Human operators are harder to find and more expensive than mining robots. Additionally, exploration in unstable tunnels that are prone to collapse or flooding can be dangerous. Robotic exploration can reduce exploration costs and hazards to human operators. In addition, robotic exploration can help reduce the environmental impact of mining operations, as it can help identify mineral deposits without the need for extensive drilling and excavation.
Overall, automation technology has brought significant advancements and benefits to the mining industry. As the mining industry continues to face challenges, including a worsening labor shortage and increasing environmental regulations, automation technology will continue to play a critical role in the industry's success.
By adopting robotics technology, mining companies can address challenges threatening the industry’s growth, such as safety concerns, increasing environmental regulations and calls for sustainability, and resolving labor constraints.
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