Drill Automation Addresses Labor, Supply Chain Challenges
Advanced automation solutions can help an operation improve both individual operator productivity and maintenance planning

By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer

In 2022, Komatsu brought to market a line-of-sight tele-operation capability and
one-touch-row operation for ZR122 drills, like the above. (Photo: Komatsu)
The latest innovations in drill rig automation and remote control can help miners contend with challenges posed by the labor market and the supply chain. They help customers improve the productivity of their drill rig operators, and plan for maintenance. Suppliers also say that field results show other key benefits include improved safety, compliance to plan, and overall blasting results.

One-Touch-Row Simplifies Control
Komatsu reported that in 2022 it brought to market a line-of-sight tele-operation capability as well as one-touch-row operation. “These were deployed onto our blasthole drill product line at two key customers, both on the 320XPC drills and our new drill line of the ZR77 and ZR122 drills,” said Wesley Taylor, product manager, automation, Komatsu surface mining equipment.

One-touch-row operation is a form of autopilot. The operator programs the mission, giving all the information needed. At the push of a button, the machine then completes the mission. “It will navigate to the hole,” Taylor said. “It will level itself. It will drill,” he said. “It will bring the drill back out of the hole, unlevel, and then attack the next hole in that prescribed plan that the operator developed.”

Beyond defining the mission, the operator is required for what is called exception handling, when the rig encounters an unexpected condition or event. One-touch-row operation is the latest addition to a growing portfolio of automation and tele-remote-control solutions for Komatsu machines. Offerings within the portfolio can help a miner solve trending challenges posed by a tight labor market and disrupted or dysfunctional supply chains.

For example, automation and tele-remote control can help a customer maximize the ability and productivity of existing staff. Komatsu has developed its automation solutions not to replace operators, but to empower them, Taylor said. The result is drill automation that can deliver high production and good compliance to plan regardless of the experience level of the attending operator. “What automation can do is it can amplify that labor so that the lowest capability is still pretty high,” Taylor said. “Automation would help your 50% operator become an 80% because they are leveraging the best practices of an autonomous drill,” he said. “They may not know all the intricacies of drilling or navigating or hitting a target to plan, but the automation is helping to fill those gaps.”

Tele-remote capability will allow a customer to do more drilling, safer, and with fewer attending operators. This helps mines with big fleets in locations where the labor market provides relatively few skilled operators. One operator in an office can program and oversee the missions for multiple rigs. “The autonomous capability could be used with an operator in a cab, or you could turn that autonomous mode on from a line-ofsight control station,” Taylor said. “Or you could even turn it on from a back office.”

Komatsu tele-remote control and automation solutions are designed to be adaptable to the capabilities of an existing network. “If their network allows them to be a kilometer (km) away, our drill automation system would allow that connectivity and control from that distance,” he said. “If they are 5 km away or greater, so long as the mine has established their network, they can kind of adjust it to their needs so they can manage where their workforce is and how their workforce gains access to the drills.”

The automation solutions, such as one-touch-row operation, enable management of a drill while using relatively less bandwidth than would be the case were it manually controlled remotely. It requires less bandwidth to remotely upload a mission, which is then executed automatically, than it does to remotely run multiple cameras and drive a rig using a joystick. “Because we are mission planning, operators are developing a mission to send to the drill, and so we don’t need that level of infrastructure or bandwidth to allow for high productivity on our remote-controlled drills,” Taylor said. “That data demand allows our customers to go with a lower-quality network, not necessarily a very high-speed 5G or LTE network,” he said. “They can start with a smaller or lower-speed network because they are really transferring the mission and monitoring the drill.”

Komatsu’s portfolio of automation solutions position a customer to better weather supply chain constraints by reducing the wear on rigs. Automation reduces operational variability and improves consistency, both of which help in both reducing and predicting future maintenance needs. “When you are automating a piece of equipment, the machine does what we tell it to do,” Taylor said. “It does the mission. It knows its limits,” he said. “When you are talking about component wear, and premature component failures that could have been induced by poor operating practices, automation helps to reduce a lot of that variability.”

By reducing variability, “You are not going to be burning through components nearly as fast as you could with the human in the chair who might be going beyond the desired limits of the machine in operation,” Taylor said. Consistency of operations “gets you into that more regular set interval of part replacement due to component wear,” he said. “For maintenance teams, that allows them to be more comfortable that they are getting the same amount of life or expecting the same amount of life from their components due to reducing those variables.”

That allows for better forecasting, which helps with inventory and planning. “By knowing they have a consistently operating drill, they can do that planning, forecasting, and budgeting a lot more reliably if they have a lot more consistent data on the operations of their equipment,” he said. One of the customers that deployed tele-remote operation to 320XPC rigs was seeking a solution that would rapidly improve safety. “The pad, where it was located in the mine, they wanted to minimize risk and they wanted to do it right away,” Taylor said. “Once the drills were delivered and commissioned with the regional support team, the customer went through a training process and immediately started removing personnel from the site,” he said. “For them, safety was critical and they felt more confident having their operators being somewhere else, monitoring the drill, versus being in the cab.”

As a result, the operators then worked in a “nicer, controlled environment,” Taylor said. “They enjoy it,” he said. With one drill per operator, “they are not wanting to go back, physically, to the drill.” The development was a “big win for the automation space,” Taylor said. “It was not just selling a drill. It was selling the capability to remove operators from harm’s way on the pad,” he said. “They wanted them somewhere else, so we could deliver that.” Which proves that “Komatsu drill automation is ready today,” he said. “We are ready to improve compliance to the plan for the customer, and overall productivity of our drills.”

Operator Station Controls Distant Rigs
Sandvik reported developing solutions and partnerships in 2022 that will grow its drill rig automation offerings portfolio and help customers overcome challenges posed by the labor market and supply chain. It further developed the AutoMine Surface Operating station. The company also announced a drilling monitoring solution, and, separately, a recent partnership with an automation technology developer, said Demetre Harris, product line manager, surface drilling, automation, rotary. “Sandvik’s latest developments include functionality and features to increase the efficiency of our scalable automation platform,” he said. The automation platform “begins with groundbreaking onboard operator assisting automation within our iDrill onboard automation, and helps customers with the transformation to a fully autonomous drilling operation through our AutoMine Surface Drilling solutions.”

AutoMine Line of Sight uses the iDrill rig automation package and moves operators from the drill cabin to a
location with line-of-sight visibility of the drill fleet. (Photo: Sandvik)
In 2022, Sandvik developed the new AutoMine Surface Operator Station. “The solution, which was demonstrated during Sandvik’s Innovation in Mining Customer Event in September 2022, provides operations the ability to remotely control a blasthole drill and a boom drill from the same operator station,” Harris said.

During the event, Sandvik experts remotely operated two surface drill rigs from a single AutoMine Surface Operator Station. One was a blasthole drill in Alachua, Florida, U.S.A. The other was a boom drill in Tampere, Finland. The distance between the two rigs was more than 8,000 km. “The solution is set to be commercially available in Q1 of 2023,” Harris said. Also in 2022, Sandvik developed a drilling monitoring solution that will give customers “the ability to track the effi- ciency of, and assist with the change management of, customers switching from onboard automation to remote-control room automation,” he said. “This development begins onboard our iSeries drilling rigs, where we are able to track the usage and productivity gained while operating Sandvik automation solutions.”

Usage and productivity metrics can be used in workforce management. “Customers facing labor constraints can definitely take advantage of the technology,” he said. Sandvik automation solutions can help improve operator productivity by providing “the ability to operate and automate multiple rigs from a single operating station,” Harris said. “Not only does the solution allow one operator to automate multiple rigs, but the operator and the station could be located anywhere in the world with connectivity to the iSeries drilling rig.”

For example, currently Sandvik drill automation solutions are being used by a mine in a location with a labor market that is short on experienced operators. “The concern in one region in particular was the access to skilled, knowledgeable drillers in the area around the mining operation,” he said. “Utilizing expatriates is costly,” Harris said. “With Sandvik’s scalable automation solution, the operation was able to achieve drilling goals with fewer skilled operators.”

The OEM-accredited solutions, “built to the specification of the drill,” can also assist in managing supply chain constraints “by increasing the life of components,” he said. Beyond extending component life, Sandvik automation solutions help the customer better predict maintenance requirements. That ability aids in forecasting, inventory, and maintenance planning. “Better predictability reduces unplanned breakdowns, and allows an operation to better schedule the components to be replaced during preventive maintenance,” he said.

Sandvik offers solutions and services for each stage on the journey to autonomous drilling. The journey could start with the iDrill onboard automation package and lead to the AutoMine Autonomous remote solution. The iDrill package “includes recordbreaking auto-drilling, auto-leveling, and auto-mast technologies,” Harris said. “The iDrill Navigation package integrates Sandvik’s high-precision TIM3D navigation solution,” he said. “With iDrill Performance and Navigation, mining operations are able to auto-drill to elevation and auto-raise and -lower the mast based on an imported drill plan.”

At the next stage, entry-level Auto- Mine remote automation increases the use of iDrill onboard solutions. “With the AutoMine remote automation solutions, operator safety, efficiency, and utilization are key,” Harris said. “AutoMine remote automation begins with AutoMine Line of Sight,” he said. “With AutoMine Line of Sight, operators are moved from the drill cabin and possible voids and high walls to a safe location with line-of-sight visibility of the drill fleet.”

AutoMine Control Room offers the next level and layer, and delivers improved safety and efficiency. It moves “the operator from the mining operation to a remote control room, located anywhere in the world with network connectivity,” Harris said. “With AutoMine Control Room, shift changes are shorter and more efficient,” he said. “Operations have the capability of operating through blasts.” Beyond safety and efficiency improvements, benefits include improved uptime and utilization, and ultimately higher productivity.

At the final stage of the journey, the “AutoMine Autonomous solution takes mining operations to the next level by improving efficiency through minimizing tramming times and lowering maintenance costs by ensuring that the iSeries drills are automated according to specifi- cation,” Harris said. “Sandvik’s Scalable Automation Platform is built to address the need of our customers despite the stage that they are in on the automation and autonomy journey,” he said. “We have a solution for our customers so that they can easily gain the confidence and transition to becoming a fully autonomous operation.” Current and future customers include those with existing mixed fleets.

Last year, Sandvik took steps to further ensure that customers with existing mixed fleets, and existing remote control and automation solutions, will be able to adopt and integrate Sandvik solutions. In September, the supplier signed an interoperability memorandum of understanding with a technology developer to create a digital interface between Sandvik iSeries rotary blasthole drilling solutions and the developer. The move shows the company’s willingness to work with third parties on Sandvik automation solutions so those solutions can integrate into existing management systems and solutions, Harris said. “As we have always expressed, Sandvik is willing to have the discussion to explore possibilities to improve customer efficiency,” he said. “We believe in the importance of our customers’ needs and we are committed to providing them with the highest OEM-quality solutions.”

Drill Assist Offers Layers of Automation
Hexagon’s Mining division reported Drill Assist has sparked interest from customers around the world. “The Drill Assist population around the world is on a growth footing and we will be releasing results from early adopters soon,” said Curtis Stacy, product manager, drill automation, Hexagon’s Mining division. “We are expecting a strong growth in 2023 deployments after the first commissioned deployment with Hexagon integration.”

Hexagon effectively acquired Drill Assist when it partnered with Phoenix Drill Control, the maker of the solution, in February 2022. In Q2 2022, Stacy described Drill Assist as an OEM-agnostic blasthole-drill-automation control platform. It uses a layer-of-technology approach and artificial intelligence-enabled control algorithms to provide measurable performance increases across all operator skill levels while preserving the OEM machine control system.

Hexagon Mining is developing Drill Assist to integrate with other Hexagon solutions, to include high-precision guidance applications
and, ultimately, Hexagon’s Mission Manager application. Above, Drill Assist is trialed at a mine in the Southwest, U.S.A.
(Photo: Hexagon Mining)
Drill Assist interfaces with the machine at the component level, reducing installation time to less than five days and preserving the machine operating status while installation work is not being performed, Stacy said. “Hexagon’s approach only automates those systems on board the drill that are required for the desired level of automation, thereby limiting the intrusion into the existing control system even further,” he said. When the drill is not under autonomous control, “the machine is exactly as delivered from the factory.”

Benefits include ease of operability, improved operator and rig performance, improved hole quality, reduced training time, and improved productivity metrics. After acquiring it, Hexagon started integrating Drill Assist into its broader technology suite ecosystem for drilling and blasting. “The drill automation solution has been solid since 2020,” Stacy said. “The R&D efforts underway at Hexagon are heavily focused on technology integration into other Hexagon technology solutions,” he said. “We are primarily focused on data analytics and end-user value-add produced by the data generated by the Drill Assist application.”

Currently, Drill Assist is deployed at a copper operation in the Southwest U.S. “Indications from field studies show this will greatly improve their drilling operations,” he said. Deployment has not been entirely void of challenges, as not all rig OEMs have developed machines with digital machine operating systems that allow easy modifications by third parties. Some OEMs embrace the philosophy that “it is the customer’s machine and the customer’s data,” Stacy said. “Other OEMs seem to be stuck in a proprietary past, which is unfortunate, but we are confi- dent that those types of decisions will be on the wrong side of history, especially with all of the open standards and integration initiatives in the mining industry.”

Drill rigs with the “ability to integrate via third party interfaces would significantly reduce costs and support efforts as existing machine sensors and controls could be leveraged to reduce component count and complexity even further,” he said. “Those discussions are ongoing while we design a new interface that will allow implementation without rig OEM assistance.” Embracing open standards initiatives, Drill Assist was designed to “not lock clients out of their rigs in any way,” Stacy said. “Maintenance of the machine remains exactly as the OEM designed it, as does operation when running in manual mode; Hexagon does not alter the OEM machine platform,” he said. “The Drill Assist technology can be ported from one drill to another as the machine is replaced as long as an interface is available.”

Drill Assist hardware is sourced from providers that have end-of-life strategies for their products and that offer direct replacements when those products become obsolete. “This enables us to port the software from one hardware platform to the next with minimal engineering effort,” Stacy said. “The core of the technology is software-based, allowing the end user decades of value.” In theory, that should allow Hexagon “to continue to innovate without customers having to make regretful expenditures on hardware that becomes obsolete, but rather get new and better technology tools each year,” he said.

Going forward, Drill Assist will continue to be developed for further integration into Hexagon’s technology ecosystem. “We will standardize some of the hardware to leverage existing Hexagon technology offerings, such as high-precision machine guidance applications and collision avoidance technologies, ending finally with a fully autonomous drill application based on Hexagon’s Mission Manager application,” Stacy said. “Parallel to the operational roadmap, integration into Hexagon’s data analytics platforms promises to offer unrivaled data- to-information value for end users.”

The solution ultimately will “solidify Hexagon as the preeminent OEM-agnostic autonomous supplier to the mining industry,” he said. “It will solidify Hexagon’s Mining division as a technology leader in the drill and blast solutions space,” Stacy said. “Those two synergies are game changers.”

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