Mining in the past two decades has taken giant steps toward productivity, efficiency and safety. One of the greatest is the automation of many underground mining jobs. It is both safer and more efficient for the control room operators to operate drills and haulage equipment remotely from the surface than to go underground.
Inco is the world leader in Telemining technology. Teleminers do their jobs from the comfort of a quiet office on the surface. Wearing street clothes and sitting in ergonomic chairs, they can run multiple drills or vehicles in comfort. They do not wear the heavy overalls, batteries, lights and tools required to go underground. They are not exposed to dirt, fumes, noise, moving vehicles or potential rockbursts. And the equipment can run all day, every day with only a short stop to refuel; there is no downtime for shift changes.
Telemining relies heavily on good cameras mounted on equipment and on reliable communications with the surface. On a video screen, the operator sees the same view as he would from an LHD, for example. The console in front of him closely mimics the one found on the vehicle. There is a joystick for steering, foot pedals for acceleration and braking, and representations of dashboard gauges. While operators are comfortable with these consoles, a controller as simple as those used by teenagers on their video games would do the trick. A single operator in the surface control room often has multiple units in his or her charge. One drill may be drilling, another changing rods, and a third tramming between rings.
Such advanced automation was designed and tested in part during the five-year Mining Automation Project (see article in CMJ’s 2002 Mining Sourcebook) with partners Sandvik Tamrock, Dyno Nobel and Natural Resources Canada. Inco continues Telemining development in its research mine and has applied the technique in some producing mines. The next steps include allowing a teleoperated LHD to dump its load as well as dig it. (Loading is more of a challenge than dumping due to the complex issue of muck pile recognition.)
The next generation of longitudinal guidance is already under development for LHDs. It involves a light rope on the back and an inertial guidance system on the vehicle. The LHD is steered along the path it must take and “learns” the lay of the land. It can then muck, haul and dump autonomously with minimal operator intervention.