Boart Longyear currently has over 50 rigs operating in North America alone. (Photo: Boart Longyear)

E&MJ explores the latest developments in electrification and automation for underground production drilling

By Carly Leonida, European Editor

Current trends influencing the design and development of underground face drilling rigs are primarily focused on enhancing safety, sustainability, and productivity. Innovations such as intelligent, autonomous, and emission-free jumbos are becoming increasingly prevalent as mines install the required support technology underground.

Battery-electric rigs offer significant benefits in these applications, including zero emissions, reduced heat generation, and lower operating costs, which contribute to safer and healthier working conditions.

Mine Master’s Roof Master 1.8KE battery-electric rig is currently being put through its paces at KGHM’s Lubin mine in Poland, alongside a face drilling rig. (Photo: Mine Master)

Mine Master’s Battery Rigs Head to KGHM

Polish manufacturer of drilling and bolting rigs, Mine Master, is at the forefront of this movement. The company has recently delivered a battery-driven bolter and drill rig to KGHM’s ZG Lubin copper mine in Poland for testing in real-world mining conditions.

The Roof Master 1.8KE bolting rig, with a transport height of 5.9 ft (1.8 m), is designed for roof bolting in mine headings from 9.8-19.4 ft in height with bolts 5.9 ft in length and a diameter in the range Ø 25-38 mm. The Mine Master team told E&MJ that the RM 1.8KE has successfully passed its initial tests and is currently being operated in production across four shifts during the day.

The second machine is the Face Master 1.7LE drill rig with a transport height of 5.4 ft. This is designed to drill blast holes with a 12 ft-long single rod and hole diameters in the Ø 45-64 mm range, in workings 18 ft high and 26 ft wide. The machine is currently undergoing tests in the mining sections at Lubin.

“First impressions of the battery-powered machines in the extremely difficult conditions at KGHM — high temperatures, humidity, high salinity and very low headings — show that working with such machines is definitely more comfortable for the operator,” Mine Master told E&MJ.

“The electric drive used is characterized by quiet operation and does not generate any perceptible vibrations in the cabin during travel. It should be noted that these are among the first in their class of such low drilling and bolting machines to be battery powered.”

The team explained that when comparing the performance and longevity of battery electric rigs to their diesel driven counterparts, battery electric rigs have shown promise of increased productivity and energy efficiency.

“During normal operation, the Roof Master 1.8KE bolting rig has proven that the performance of a battery-powered machine is no different to that of an internal diesel engine and, in some respects, is even far superior in terms of machine efficiency and availability,” said Mine Master. “KGHM intends to purchase several more battery-powered machines from Mine Master in 2025 to broaden the experience of using such machines in different underground conditions and to prepare the mine’s infrastructure for greater use of battery drives.”

Another recent development offered by Mine Master is a super low-profile drill jumbo, the FLP1410. The FLP1410 is a single boom drill rig designed for low-profile applications. It has a minimum height of 4.6 ft, allowing it to tram and drill in excavations starting from 5.2 ft in height. The machine is designed to provide the highest safety levels possible, as well as reliable and high-performance drilling, exceptional comfort for the operator and easy maintenance. Mine Master said this is currently the only machine on the market that can be equipped with its state-of-the-art Automatic Drilling System.

The Automatic Drilling System (ADS) offers several advantages that can increase efficiency and improve the drilling process. With the ADS, the machine can drill standalone during shift changes, allowing for continuous operation. Additionally, one operator can set up and supervise multiple rigs, further increasing efficiency.

The rigs can also be used in fully manual mode, providing flexibility in operation. However, Mine Master explained that the ADS results in an increased pull per blast and better geometry of the face, floor, roof, and side walls. This leads to reduced or no scaling, easier bolting, easier tramming conditions and better rock fragmentation.

“Overall, the ADS offers significant benefits that can improve the drilling process and increase productivity,” it added.

Komatsu’s new ZJ32Bi jumbo will be officially unveiled at MINExpo 2024 in September. (Image: Komatsu)

Komatsu Previews the ZJ32Bi Jumbo

At an exclusive hard rock media event at its Arizona Proving Grounds in February 2024, Komatsu gave a sneak peek of a new jumbo that it plans to unveil at the MINExpo 2024 tradeshow which is scheduled to be held in Las Vegas, US, this September.

The Komatsu ZJ32Bi is a medium-class intelligent, battery-electric, dual-boom drill rig for underground hard-rock mining. The drill’s control system enables semi-autonomous functionality and operator augmentation, and the number of hoses on the boom has been reduced from previous models.

The new rig has a battery capacity of 83 kWh. It measures 10.7 ft tall with the cabin or canopy in the tramming position, and offers a maximum coverage area (W x H) of 34.1 ft x 27.9 ft.

The ZJ32Bi uses its battery drivetrain for tramming from one site to the next, and then connects to a traditional power supply for drilling operations. Komatsu said the drill offers onboard charging, smart opportunistic charging and 100% compatibility with existing mine infrastructure.

The new Komatsu Z3 series medium-class jumbo drills and bolters are built on a common platform. Komatsu said the flexibility this allows along with its focus on modularity offers job site efficiency that can help to reduce service and maintenance costs, while the universal operator controls simplify user adoption and training efficiency.

“As more underground mining operations look to electrify their fleet assets, battery-powered machines can support these electrification efforts,” the company added. “The ZJ32Bi is part of Komatsu’s path to offer sustainable and semi-autonomous solutions to support underground mining operations with a route toward reliable electrification.”

Sandvik, New Deliveries, New Tech

In July 2023, IGO’s Nova Operation in Western Australia became the first Australian mine to commission a Sandvik DL422iE battery-electric longhole drill, as part of its commitment to cleaner, safer mining.

“Accelerating decarbonization is one of our sustainability priorities and there are clear benefits to using battery-electric vehicles in the underground environment,” said Darren Kwok, Head of Mining Electrification and Technology at Barminco. “Reducing or eliminating diesel emissions improves working conditions for our people and has the potential to improve efficiency and profitability. We’re very excited to see the benefits that this new Sandvik rig can provide.”

The DL422iE is a fully automated, battery-powered top hammer longhole drill designed for underground mass mining in 13.1ft x 13.1 ft or larger production drifts. It can drill vertical and inclined fans and single or parallel Ø89-127 mm longholes up to 177 ft in depth using ST58 and ST68 tube rods. The drill’s electric driveline includes a battery package and electric motor which allow for zero emissions while tramming and reduced thermal load. The DL422iE also features Sandvik’s patented Charging While Drilling technology for reduced battery charging time without the need for additional infrastructure.

In November 2023, Sandvik announced that it would supply two new DL432i longhole production drills to Jimond Mining Management Company (JMMC), a subsidiary of global mining services provider, JCHX Mining Management Co., for the Kamoa-Kakula copper operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

These will be the first Sandvik underground drills at Kamoa-Kakula, and will be used to help contractor, JMMC, implement longhole stoping. Deliveries are scheduled to be complete by Q4 2024.

“We’re always striving to increase our productivity and efficiency,” said Youcheng Wang, VP of JCHX Mining and GM of JCHX Overseas Division. “We are excited to introduce Sandvik underground drills to site for the first time. We are already successfully operating Sandvik drills in other mine sites around the world, and we expect to replicate our success at Kamoa-Kakula.”

Sandvik also introduced AutoMine for Underground Drills in November 2023. This is a tele-remote solution that enables operators to remotely, and simultaneously control and supervise multiple automated Sandvik underground drills, increasing their efficiency, safety and overall productivity.

Sandvik said that, with AutoMine for Underground Drills, it has become the first OEM to introduce a unified traffic management system for drills, loaders and trucks.

The new offering is available for Sandvik longhole drills (DL) i-series machines with three levels of tele-remote operations: single drill, drill fleet and machine fleet. Operators have the flexibility to choose between operating from an AutoMine chair or console station, depending upon which offering level best suits their operational requirements.

Sandvik said the AutoMine for Underground Drills tele-remote system includes ring-to-ring tramming capabilities, allowing seamless control and coordination of drills, loaders and trucks operating in the same area with sophisticated traffic management.

AutoMine also incorporates an enhanced Access Protector System. This safety feature prevents personnel from entering the machine area while the system is operating in automation mode or remote mode. In addition, it has an advanced traffic management system that enables operators to easily control the traffic flow of multi-machine operations and handle complex operating situations, resulting in greater flexibility and mining output.

Driller training has also been high up the agenda for Sandvik. The company introduced two new virtual training simulators to its Digital Driller offering in October 2023. The new Sandvik DD322i and Sandvik DD422i Dual Controls simulators feature the latest software and advanced training methods for underground drill operators and maintenance teams.

The Dual Controls simulator, which was showcased at the CIM Convention in Montreal, Canada, in May 2023, replicates the dual drilling control panel available for Sandvik DD422i and Sandvik DD422iE rigs, and can be further customized to include either one or two control panels during training, depending on the application. Operators can experience true multitask operations from a single control panel, including bolting, boring and meshing.

Both new simulators retain the classic features of Digital Driller, such as total location flexibility, easy setup, customizable training courses and group learning. However, Sandvik said the upgraded software now offers a more sophisticated and authentic operator experience.

Digital Driller can be utilized across all competency levels, from product familiarization and basic training for novice operators, to developing and refreshing the skills of experienced operators. Trained operators receive a formal qualification in Beginner, Professional or Drill Master levels after each module has been completed.

Epiroc Leads ReNAM Autonomy Project

Epiroc, meanwhile, is leading a collaborative project with Boliden, Algoryx and Örebro University that is scheduled to run until 2025 with the aim of implementing fully autonomous face drilling.

Face drilling is already automated in part, with rig control systems following digital drill plans. However, in practice, the face topography is seldom perfect. Often, it’s necessary for the operator to adjust the drill plan manually to compensate for various types of obstacles.

Oskar Lundberg, Global Innovation Manager at Epiroc Underground division, explained in a recent interview: “The success of the blast is very much dependent on the quality of the drilling. We are trying to figure out if an autonomous system can achieve results that are comparable with or better than those of experienced operators.”

The plan is to equip a Boomer face drill rig with a laser scanner and an AI system to scan and analyze the face before adjusting and applying the drill plan. To teach the system to identify potential problems and decide which changes should be made to the drill plan, the project is constructing a simulated environment for running the thousands of scenarios necessary for the trial-and-error process of machine learning. After simulation training, the system graduates to an actual physical mine for the final tests.

To build the digital twin, an actual mine tunnel at Boliden is scanned, and the environment is then rendered in the Unity game engine. A large number of slightly randomized environments, including obstacles, are generated to provide different training scenarios. A digitalized version of the rig is inserted into the simulated environment, and a physics engine from Algoryx ensures that all forces affecting the rig are as close to reality as possible. A simulated laser scanner, with corresponding functionality to a real one, is added to the simulated rig.

Epiroc said that, from the system’s point of view, it’s vital that the simulated environment resembles an actual mine as closely as possible. The digital twin does not have to look exactly like a mine, but it has to scan like one. The simulated laser scans the simulated environment, generating a point cloud which the system then analyzes to look for potential problems and adjusts the drill plan accordingly.

It added that another area that can benefit from machine learning is the autonomous control of the two booms on the rig; the booms must ‘learn’ how to move freely and precisely without colliding with either each other or the rock. After running and analyzing different scenarios a few thousand times, the system should be ready for testing in an actual mine.

“Using simulation is a much safer and quicker way to accomplish the task — we simply cannot shut down a mine for the weeks or months necessary to train the system,” said Lundberg. “This will hopefully enable us to greatly reduce the need for physical testing and also simulate scenarios that would be hard to set up in real life.”

The Boart Longyear Services team onsite in Australia. The business has numerous long-term production drilling contracts where its team is integrated into the mine production group. (Photo: Boart Longyear)

Expert Outlook: Another Busy Year Ahead

2023 was a busy year for both drill rig manufacturers and contract drillers alike, and this trend looks set to continue as favorable commodity prices and shortages of skilled labor prevail.

Boart Longyear Products offers a full suite of services for production drilling, raise drilling and blasting, cable bolt drilling and service holes. Terry Kirky, Global VP of Drilling Services at Boart Longyear, told E&MJ that the firm has seen a steady stream of requests from miners doing their own production drilling over the past 12 months, despite not many new mines opening.

“We believe this is mostly due to miners not being able to man up the rigs themselves, and drillers moving around or bidding onto higher paying development jobs in the mine,” he explained.

“With gold price staying over $2k/oz, we expect more demand for long hole drilling, especially for the specialty narrow-vein drilling and blasting that we’re known for underground. In addition, miners that are going to lower their grade cut-off and need more production drilling done are expected to engage to capture the upside on price.”

Boart announced in December 2023 that the company is going private which will allow it to become more agile and to focus even more closely on the needs of its customers. Kirky added that, in addition to benefitting from Boart’s engineering and product development functions, this move will also allow its services business to adapt to market conditions at a much faster pace.