Precious metals like gold, platinum and chrome are vital components for everything from cell phones to space shuttles. To secure these resources, miners are digging deeper than ever before. Currently, demand keeps the value of these ores higher than the cost of extracting them. However, long-term profitability of ultra-deep, narrow-vein operations will require a more sustainable approach that increases productivity while minimizing the cost of extraction.
To this end, some operations are exploring robotic solutions. 80% of underground mining accidents and fatalities occurring at the face. So, allowing workers to perform drilling, blasting, bolting and breaking remotely can, potentially, save lives.
Remote-controlled demolition machines are providing effective solutions for a number of applications. From deep-vein operations to support tasks such as shaft revitalization, demolition robots are helping producers increase efficiency throughout the mine.
Ultra-deep, narrow-vein applications
Safety risks and logistical needs—such as providing air, electricity and other utilities—increase exponentially with the depth of a mine. Removing minimal rock, while mining ore-rich veins, reduces extraction costs and minimize overburden.
However, this can lead to tight spaces and difficult working conditions for miners at the face. In addition to low ceilings, uneven floors, extreme temperatures and high-pressure environments; miners must also contend with heavy, handheld equipment that greatly increases the physical toll on their bodies.
Traditional ultra-deep mining methods rely on hours of punishing physical labor in extreme conditions, with workers using manual tools such as jacklegs, stopers and ad-hoc bar & arms. These tools can weigh upwards of 72 pounds (32.4 kilograms). These tools can increase a miner’s exposure to falling rock and vibrations. Also, these loud tools can increase the risk of acoustic trauma.
This type of labour has existed in the mining industry for years. There hasn’t been another viable option. Deep-vein mining requires highly maneuverable, highly durable equipment. While robotic options exist for bulk mining applications, these units are not adapted for ultra-deep, narrow-vein operations. A traditional robotic drilling rig is only made for drilling, which means additional equipment is required at the face for any other operations.
Additionally, these jumbo machines need large tunnels and flat surfaces to travel. This leads to more time and effort developing shafts and roads. Jackleg drills are portable and allow operators to approach the face from an ideal angle.
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Some gold mines have been able to blend the safety and productivity of remote operation with the flexibility and precision of a jackleg by adding demolition robots to their deep-vein operations.
These compact machines offer enhanced power-to-weight ratios—often equal to machines three times larger. Designed for demanding demolition applications, they stand up to the heat and pressure of ultra-deep mining, while heavy-duty Caterpillar tracks and outriggers allow them to cover even the roughest terrain. An advanced three-part arm provides the multi-directional range of motion needed for drilling, scaling, breaking and bolting. Also, the use of hydraulics eliminates the need for a compressed air supply. This minimizes utility requirement at the face, while electric-drives guarantee zero-emission operation.
Additionally, demolition robots provide versatility that can streamline operations and limit emissions in deep environments.
With the right attachment, operators can move between drilling, breaking and scaling, while never being within 13.1 feet (4 meters) of the work surface. While the operator stands a safe distance away, the robot can drill, load a rock bolt and then torque, without any wasted movement.
Stope retrieval operations
Retrieving equipment and materials from stopes has been delegated to robots for some time. However, the design of most robots is not for optimal efficiency in rescue and retrieval operations. Demolition robots, on the other hand, seem built for these tasks.
Some mines have found that demolition robots traverse the uneven ground more quickly than traditional retrieval equipment. They are able to break up obstacles to make extraction easier.
The maneuverable arm makes attaching cables through the scoop’s lug more efficient. With a grapple attachment, these machines can easily sort out metallic garbage for more efficient and safer material removal.
One operation looking to excavate gold from an existing stope found demolition robots provide necessary maneuverability, working on 35-degree inclines.
The company was using an inefficient scraping method to retrieve ore from an 11.8-inch-thick (300-millimeter-thick) vein, 13,123.4 feet (4,000 meters) below ground.
With only 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) of clearance, the mine needed a compact robotic machine capable of standing up to immense pressure and extreme temperatures.
A compact demolition robot with a specialized drill attachment provided an ideal solution, allowing operators to remain out of danger.
Shaft maintenance operations
Opening shafts or performing shaft maintenance are two other areas in which remote-controlled demolition equipment can potentially provide more efficiency.
For operations that are returning to old veins, modern equipment can supplement production.
However, these shafts are often found in a state of deterioration—with large rubble, collapsed supports and nonfunctioning utilities—making the process slow and dangerous.
Additionally, safety requirements have advanced alongside mining techniques. Thus, meeting modern regulations can require significant time and effort. In these situations, the versatility of remote-controlled demolition machines can minimize equipment and personnel requirements.
Armed with a suite of attachments, a demolition robot can perform many of the tasks required.
For example, operators can use a breaker for scaling during initial maintenance or refurbishment. Also, it can increase efficiency during clearing operations by offering a non-blasting solution.
Operations wouldn’t need to stop work and remove employees for blasting. An operator could switch to shears, or a multi-cutter attachment, to remove sets and services—such as pulling down utilities or old support beams. For material handling and mucking out, labourers can use a bucket. Secondary blasting, support units and suspension can be managed with drill attachments. Grapples can be used to help erect support ribs and install safety netting or wire mesh. Also, they can set new services such as rails, pipes or cables.
For one operation, using demolition robots to open older shafts doubled monthly linear output, while reducing labour requirements by 44%.
The future of mining
With extensive equipment options available from innovative manufacturers, there is an opportunity to use demolition robots in just about every high-risk, heavy-labour situation.
Compact units are currently available that range in size from half ton to 12 tons with each offering power-to-weight ratios two or three times that of a conventional excavator.
With full-remote capability and instant data retrieval for maintenance and troubleshooting, demolition robots are positioned to bring the industry into the modern era—and into fully-electric production.
Modern mining has many exciting challenges in store for the new generation of technologists, who will need creative solutions to supply the world’s ever-growing demand for metals.
Working with demolition robot manufacturers to provide mechanized mining and maintenance solutions promises to improve not only current productivity, but ensure a safer, more sustainable future for mining operations.
By Raymond Ippersiel, Training & Application Specialist, Brokk Inc.