DESLEY BLANCH: Australian mining engineers have devised a mining automation system aimed at improving mine safety with its collision avoidance technology and remote operation system. The new system will allow operators to prevent accidents and collisions involving massive rock-breaking equipment at mines that might be thousands of kilometres away.
The new Rocklogic technology has been taken up by some of Australia's largest mining companies as they mine for copper, gold and iron ore. Rocklogic is a system for remotely operating a rock-breaker and it's been developed by Western Australia-based company Transmin, whose senior engineer, Dr Adrian Boeing explains how mines use rock breakers.
DR ADRIAN BOEING : A rock-breaker is this large hydraulic machine, it’s quite similar to an excavator that people might have been seen around, so the difference is that’s fixed, so it sits on top of a large pedestal, it’s got a slew base that lets it rotate around, and then it has a large boom or arm which is actuated through hydraulic cylinders, and at the end of that is a large hammer. So it’s kind of like a jack hammer except it weighs two tonnes.
And the way that that’s used in mining, for example in iron ore mining, is that you have a truck that’s been loaded with iron ore material and that dumps it into a bin which sits on top of a crusher. And so what happens there is either they’ll have something called a grizzly, which is like a grate that sits on top of this crusher and it stops any over-size rocks from coming down into the crusher, which the crusher is not able to crush. And so what the rock-breaker’s job is -- is essentially is to break those large over-size rocks into smaller rocks. And Rocklogic is an automation system that sits on top of that, that rock-breaker.
DESLEY BLANCH : This technology is arisen due to industry requests, so obviously they’ve got some problems. So what have you done?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : It’s very confined space so they have issues with safety there and as always as with any business they’re trying to increase their production and efficiency. I guess in the military they sort of have this phrase, it helps them determine when a system’s ready for an automation system, and they talk about jobs that are dirty, dangerous and dull. And underground mining and rock breaking in an underground mine certainly fulfils those descriptions.
So what we did is we came up with a collision avoidance system that increases the safety of the operation, and also with other aspects of the automation we added an automated movement system, which is sort of like an auto-pilot and drives the rock-breaker to set destinations, and we added a remote operation system.
So what that does is allow mine sites to build control rooms, similar to the kinds of things that I guess people would have seen on television, NASA control rooms, and what that does is that removes the operator from all the hazards that are associated with underground mining and being onsite and gives them a safe office environment to control the rock-breaker from.
DESLEY BLANCH : And it is operated remotely as you’ve just said. How remote can it be, is he just above ground or is he thousands of kilometres away? How far can it be?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : Well actually that’s an interesting point because just the other day one of our automation engineers Tane, he managed to control our rock-breaker that was installed at a site on the east coast from where we’re based in Perth. So that was a distance of over three-thousand kilometres that he managed to do that from.
And I guess we’ve seen from a theoretical basis, robots from NASA operating on different planets doing essentially drilling. So I guess from a theoretical point of view it can almost be inter-planetary distances, but we’re really focussing on things that are trying to get our technology to a production-ready level for thousands of kilometres, so that people can operate rock-breakers that are in the Pilbara from Perth.
One of the big sort of driving factors behind remote operation is that you can operate multiple machines with one person, and the reason that that’s quite important is because there’s actually in the mining industry it’s difficult to get skilled labour. So what that allows you to do is to have a skilled person controlling multiple machines and always be on hand to provide their advice, instead of having them stuck on one particular mine site where there’s no mobile reception and you’ve got a problem on your site and not able to make contract with them.
When you’ve got this remote operation system, they can take over and take control of multiple different machines and you’ve always got the expert skilled labour running it.
DESLEY BLANCH : Sounds like an air controllers’ job, you’re watching incoming planes all at once. I mean I would be concerned I think that one person was watching half a dozen machines at once.
DR ADRIAN BOEING : Typically the sort of upper limit’s about three machines that you can really pay attention to at any one time. But we’ve got a number of things that help them along with that job. So for example the collision avoidance system will monitor everything that’s happening with the rock-breaker, make sure that it doesn’t accidentally damage any part of site.
They have an automated sort of auto-pilot style system that lets them automatically park and deploy the rock-breaker. So it really simplifies the operations for that individual, makes it much easier and sort of less hands-on job than it would be if he was sort of directly controlling it on site with a set of levers.
DESLEY BLANCH: So how does the Rocklogic system as this is the first of its kind on a commercial level so what makes yours unique?
DR ADRIAN BOEING: There are a number of unique features to it but the way the system works in general is that you have a human operator who sits in front of something called a human machine interface that’s just sort of like a computer – they can click different things and interact with that computer.
He’s got a set of joysticks and using that computer and joysticks he’ll send instructions to the mine site where we have the Rocklogic system which sits inside this big electrical cabinet and it’s got a computer inside it which is the brains of the system which makes all the decisions and it sends those decisions and signals off to an embedded computer and IO control system that sits on the rock breaker itself. And that actuates the valves on the rock breaker, receives the signals and sensors from that rock breaker, passes all that information back up; also grabs in information about what’s happening with the vehicles around the area and presents all that information in a nice compact way to the operator.
In addition the operator has an emergency shutdown system which they can trigger at any time if there’s anything going wrong. So, the unique features that we have out of all of those parts are predominantly based on the sensors.
There is not any other system that has sensors in each part of the rock breaker that lets it know what its position is at any point in time. And so, using those sensors we can implement unique features like the collision avoidance system, the automated parking system; and one of the really special things that we have is what we call a process integration or systems integration.
So, what that means is the rock breaker isn’t acting on its own; it’s actually interacting with all the other systems around it. An example for that is, if the vehicles are coming to dump their rocks where the rock breaker is, those vehicles can actually send a signal to the rock breaker. It’ll then automatically retract itself and then those vehicles are allowed to dump. Then, once they’ve left the rock breaker can automatically deploy itself back and the operator can just resume their operations.
So what that does is it eliminates all the delay to the vehicles and that greatly increases the through-put and the amount of I guess money that they get at the end of the day from all the revenue.
DESLEY BLANCH: And is it an expensive item? Would it cost mining companies a lot to install one of these things?
DR ADRIAN BOEING: The Rocklogic system itself varies in its price range and I guess if you go for the higher end you’re looking at a price around a half-a-million dollars [Australian] but I guess to put that into context, if you’re looking at a iron ore mine site – they’ll typically have multiple crushing stations where all the material gets delivered, but a typical through-put for one of these crushing stations might be around four-and-a-half-thousand tonnes per hour; and the iron ore price is around $130 a tonne, so if you do the maths on that one you’ll find that in an hour you can easily get half-a-million dollars worth of revenue coming through at that point.
DESLEY BLANCH: Paid for itself in an hour!
DR ADRIAN BOEING: Well that’s revenue (laughs). If you look at that integration system I was referring to where the vehicles will automatically pull themselves out of the way and increase the through-put, we’ve seen on some sites that they can actually earn an extra ten-million-dollars in one year, so it can pay for itself quite quickly.
DESLEY BLANCH: Now, Adrian, you’re partner-in-crime in this was Daniel Adams; he’s the project’s technical head, so tell us how the project came about because you both drew on experience that you gained from working outside of the mining industry.
DR ADRIAN BOEING: Yes, that’s right. We’ve got a fantastic team, it’s got a really wide range of experiences in robotics and computer vision and a number of people with PhD’s and whatnot, but the project sort of came about in 2008 when we were working on these large grapples: I mean - 18 metre reach 15 tonne machines that were only 13 metres apart and they had to inter-operate and so we had to develop a collision-avoidance system and that’s where everyone came together.
My personal background is I had a bit of experience in the automotive industry and with robotics doing things like adaptive cruise control and monitoring what’s happening with vehicles along those lines and Daniel actually had a number of years of experience of doing that kind of work using remote control of vehicles as well.
But his main background is in signal processing embedded systems but he actually spent a fair bit of time working at a games company where he developed these massively multi-player on-line games or MMOs as they are called. And he worked on the networking and the physics programs behind it so he’s got a pretty good background in how to do a lot of this sort of networking sides of things or the remote operation side of things from that games industry experience he has.
DESLEY BLANCH: I knew when your son’s playing all those games it was going to end up making money for somebody. (laughs)
DR ADRIAN BOEING: Yeah well you know the games industry is now bigger than the movies industry so it’s not a bad place to be.
DESLEY BLANCH : Some Australian mining companies have taken up the technology. So what interest is coming from countries other than Australia?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : Australia actually really is leading the way in terms of the uptake of that sort of automation technology. We’ve got examples in Western Australia; Rio Tinto’s spent more than half a billion dollars on an autonomous train, they’re ordering 150 autonomous trucks and they’re making autonomous drill rigs. So WA’s really leading the way in adoption there, and it’s similar on the east coast. We’ve got in New South Wales near north Parkes where that telescope is, there’s a lot of work in underground mining automation there.
So Australia’s really leading the way. But in terms of the international scene in South Africa and companies like Codelco in Chile are really pushing forwards with automation as well internationally. And a lot of this technology for example, there’s Komatsu automated trucks developed in places like Japan or in Scandinavia. So yeah there’s an international push as well.
DESLEY BLANCH : Are they asking for your technology?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : Yeah we’ve had some of our systems installed in the UK, and in Europe. But the way that the mining boom is sort of happening at the moment, there’s plenty of demand just here in WA. So that’s the majority of our work is at the moment just within Australia.
DESLEY BLANCH : Adrian you say the next development plan for the technology is autonomous mining, so a bit more on that, what do you mean by that?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : Commonly there’s a bit of confusion about what really autonomous means. We talk about automatic systems, and that’s a system that follows a well-defined set of rules and doesn’t really make a decision on its own, whereas an autonomous robot can operate in a completely unstructured environment without any kinds of human supervision.
So for example on the rock-breaker that would mean it identifies a rock, selects the best strategy either rotate that rock around or find the best place to put the hammer and break the rock, scheduling when it should do that and doing all the planning. So it’s quite a large involved task to make a fully autonomous system that can work in a completely unstructured environment without requiring any kind of interacting decisions from a human.
DESLEY BLANCH : How far away do you think that is?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : Great question, I actually used to do research in android like little walking robots, and that’s a question that would often come up in that field of research, people would ask me when I am going to get my own robot maid or robot butler?
DESLEY BLANCH : Perhaps you could ask the robot itself, it could give you the answer if it’s fully automated?
DR ADRIAN BOEING : (laughs) Yeah we’re a while away from that. But actually there’s a bit of literary research back when I first sort of started doing research, and I saw in the 1960s people would say it’s about 20 years away. And then you’d look in the 1980s and people would say it’s about 20 years away, and in fact just recently the other day I read something that said it’s around 20-35. So I think the correct answer to that question is always 20 years away.
DESLEY BLANCH : Twenty years away. (laughs)
DR ADRIAN BOEING : But to give you a bit of a less of a tongue-in-cheek sort of answer on that one, with autonomous systems what the industry’s really looking for isn’t really a fully autonomous system. It’s a system where humans and sort of robots can work together to achieve the best of both worlds.
So they want a supervised autonomy. So there’s a big push now to get that kind of technology developed in a very short time span, so three to five years from now they’re really pushing to have supervised autonomy in that time frame.
DESLEY BLANCH: Dr Adrian Boeing - who is senior engineer and leader of the team at Transmin, the West Australian company which has used crash avoidance technology in rock-breaking robots.
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