RCS 5 can be updated for dual control room, remote-control capabilities so a Simba rig can be controlled from the cab or from one of two remote locations. Authority of the rig can then be transferred between the three, instantly, at the push of a touchscreen button. (Image: Epiroc)

Stories from the field show long hole drill automation and remote control solutions give improved accuracy, production and profits

By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer

The assertion that Industry 4.0 solutions for long hole drill rigs can help mines improve accuracy, reduce dilution and increase production gains traction with each new press release from the major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). The solutions are purpose-engineered to reduce operator errors and to increase rig utilization, and the data and feedback from trials and new deployments appear to prove it. Recent success stories from the field support the data and indicate possible future trends in technology development.

RCS 5 Offers Dual Control Rooms

Epiroc reported successful trials of dual control room, remote-control capability offered as an addition to the latest version of the Rig Control System (RCS 5) for Simba long hole drill rigs.

“Operators can run the machine from two control rooms,” said Olav Kvist, global portfolio manager, production drilling.

“This can accommodate the need for an underground remote office or control room, and also one on the surface whenever you need it,” he said. “It enables a 24/7 operation.”

With the new capability, an operator in the cab would set up autonomous drilling. They would “download the drill plan, would teach the rig the drilling procedure, and then they can leave the rig while it is drilling,” Kvist said. “They hand over the authority of the machine to the control room.”

An operator in the control room “will then see the machine on their screens, and they can monitor it or they can abort and do some re-planning if they want,” he said. “Typically, they would just monitor it.”

That can now be done from two different locations, and the control rooms can easily pass responsibility for the machine back and forth as needed.

“It is as simple as what we call allocation with a touchscreen,” Kvist said. “You touch a button on the touchscreen to allocate the machine, taking over the responsibility and the control like you were in the cab,” he said. “Then, on the screen, you will see through the cameras and do the full operation including the tramming, moving of the machine, switching to another drill plan, and more.”

At Boliden’s Garpenberg copper and zinc mine in Hedemora, Sweden, more than half the holes are drilled using remote control and automation. The mine operates several Simba rigs. Three use RCS 5 with dual control room, remote-control capability, Kvist said.

“For all three, the dual control room will be set up during 2022,” he said. “Any one of the three can be run manually or be handed over to remote.”

Once the rigs are drilling autonomously, “they can be run from the underground control room, which is typically two operators taking turns on those five,” Kvist said. “And then you can also switch to surface in shift changes when they are doing ventilation of the underground offices for exhausting gases.”

Garpenberg, the oldest active mine in Sweden, is fully digital, Epiroc reported. Commissioned in 2017, the underground control room is 1,200 m underground and has conference rooms, a coffee maker, televisions and bathrooms.

“The mine is totally WiFi enabled, and all the Simba rigs are on WiFi,” Kvist said. “They can be operated manually, in the cabin, or switched to remote at any given time,” he said. “You can either be on the surface or underground.”

Currently, the mine and Epiroc are trialing autonomous drilling over shift breaks. “This is also improving their quality because if you leave the machine in automation, it is much more consistent in the way it is operating,” he said.

Other gains include a reduced amount of cleaning. “Cleaning of the drill holes was 26% a few years ago,” Kvist said. “Now they are down to 7% or 8%, which is a fantastically low number,” he said. “This is achieved not only by the machine features, but by the work done by Boliden teams to advance their use of the machine.”

Introduced in Q3 2021, the dual control room, remote-control capability is in use at one other Swedish mine. “We have not really been able to put this on the market yet,” Kvist said. “The lead times have been nine months for computer screens. It is incredibly long right now due to transportation and logistics issues due to the pandemic.”

The dual control room, remote-control capability is offered as an add-on to the RCS 5.

Released in 2019, RCS 5 offers machine-to-machine communication and real-time drill plan sharing. It offers the Drill Plan Generator function, which facilitates creating and editing drill plans in the cab or remotely. The Drilling Data Screen function gives real-time depth and penetration rate feedback with a histogram for easy in-hole monitoring.

Kvist said the system’s most popular tool is a drilling algorithm that significantly improves drilling performance in poor rock conditions. It allows the rig to “continuously adapt to the rock conditions,” he said.

“We have further improved on that software so now we are able to smoothly ramp out and ramp up when we go into voids,” Kvist said. Benefits include improved drill rig operability, drilling accuracy and longevity of consumables, and less wear on the rig.

Epiroc plans at least two new releases in 2022 related to the Simba line.

“What we are looking at adding now is a digital tool that will complement the machine so that drill plan handling will now be available in an app format under an umbrella called My Epiroc,” Kvist said. “It is a generic app that you can download to an Android or an Apple iPhone, tablet or PC,” he said. “Then you can work from there and be able to share detailed information that operators report on their daily operations.”

The benefits include reduced paperwork, convenience and gains won from a single source of truth, and fast and accurate communications between personnel. It will enable critical time-sensitive information to get to the people who need it most.

“You might have a 2,000- or 3,000-m drill project spanning 15 drill plans,” Kvist said. “When you encounter different rock conditions, you can make and send notes or a message to a surveyor or a coworker about void holes due to broken rock, or the need to stem due to the collar, or a charging pipe needing to be shorter. All those types of comments will be digitally accessible, so there is one version of the truth, through this application.”

Production Optimizer Offers Accuracy Gains

The Cracow gold mine in Queensland, Australia, recently renewed its contract for the Production Optimizer and committed to the system for the remaining life of the mine, Minnovare said.

“This is a sterling endorsement of the technology’s value for Cracow and the confidence the mine management, engineering and operator teams have in the system to deliver against the mine’s output and profitability targets over the coming years,” said Mick Beilby, director and cofounder, Minnovare.

The mine was among the first to deploy the drill-accuracy-optimization system, and has also adopted Minnovare CORE, an advanced drilling data-and-analytics platform.

Use of the Production Optimizer at the Cracow gold mine in Queensland, Australia, makes narrowing veins economical, and increases drill accuracy for improved production and big profits. (Photo: Minnovare)

“Minnovare CORE is the conduit between the client’s drill-and-blast-design software and allows for seamless integration of the two systems, making digital transfer of drill plans to the Production Optimizer and allocation to drillers and rigs a straightforward process,” Beilby said. “By eliminating traditional paper-based plans, through the use of DigiPlan, our digital drill plans, engineers save time and are able to drive increased quality outcomes via a digital paper trail.”

At Cracow, operators use the CORE mobile application underground. The interface was developed with feedback from, among others, operators at the mine and is “optimized for all levels of technology competency to allow for rapid initial adoption and operation through muscle memory on an ongoing basis,” Beilby said. “This drives strong ongoing drilling and stope performance outcomes for clients by ensuring operators can easily and consistently use the technology.”

Along with Production Optimizer and CORE, the miner uses DigiPlod or daily drilling logs supported by the system.

“DigiPlod replaces paper-based drilling logs, allowing for easier and higher-quality data to be input by operators and higher-quality information available faster for engineering and charge-up crews at the end of each shift,” Beilby said.

“With Minnovare CORE tracking and capturing this volume of data, the system is able to supply valuable analytics to clients, including productivity benchmarking and machine health data to continuously improve the drill-and-blast process,” he said. “The data available in Minnovare CORE also allows our operations teams to proactively monitor system health and contact clients if any issues are identified, ahead of them negatively impacting drilling operations.”

Adoption of the solutions was transformative for the mine.

In 2016, the mine used a traditional DICE-5 hole pattern. “Production drill hole deviation had been an ongoing issue at Cracow for some time,” Beilby said. It was causing dilution and rework due to bridges.

“This problem was exacerbated due to the decreasing width of ore bodies being mined, where the majority of issues with stope performance were encountered,” he said.

Minnovare was brought on to consult. The resulting study identified “that the majority of holes drilled were falling well outside the designed tolerance of 300 mm at the toe,” Beilby said. “In fact, greater than 26% of holes deviated more than 400 mm from the target.”

Because of the accuracy gains offered, Production Optimizer was trialed. The system “combines sensors, software and data analytics, and can be retrofitted to underground production drills irrespective of make, model, or year,” Beilby said. “By eliminating the variables that impact the effectiveness of the drilling process, Production Optimizer delivers highly accurate and consistent drilling, which delivers improved blasting outcomes for our clients.”

In 2018, Cracow officially adopted Production Optimizer. The benefits presented almost immediately.

“The site was no longer reliant on the variables that often negatively impact drilling accuracy and consistency and stope performance,” Beilby said. “Operators were no longer reliant on survey mark-up, rig leveling, rotary encoders and inclinometers.”

Use of the Production Optimizer gave a “faster, more accurate and simple setup process,” he said.

The accuracy delivered prompted the mine to switch to the Zipper pattern, which reduced the total number of holes per stope, the mine said. “Being able to move between Dice-5 and Zipper pattern as needed has allowed us to maximize gold recovery and reduce dilution,” said Thao Nguyen, senior mining engineer, Aeris Resources, Cracow mine.

The Zipper pattern gave the needed accuracy, Bielby said.

“The result was a significant improvement in drilling accuracy, with 52% of holes being drilled within the deigned 300-mm tolerance post implementation of the system,” he said. “This increased accuracy resulted in a 62% reduction in average unplanned dilution across the operation, which saved $3.2 million in the cost of hauling diluted material and delivered $5.9 million of additional ore recovery over the first full year of implementation.”

Narrower areas of the orebody “that were previously uneconomic to mine could now be brought into reserves and mined at a later date,” he said.

Using the Production Optimizer, stopes as narrow as 1.5 m became economical, Nguyen said.

“In 2018, the majority of stope designs were 2.5 to 3.5 m, now they are 1.5 m to 2.5 m,” he said. “Before the introduction of the Production Optimizer technology on our long-hole rigs, very narrow stopes such as these would have been difficult to recover economically.”

Subsequently, the adoption and use of Minnovare CORE allowed management to hold “operators accountable for setting up to the designed heading,” Beilby said. “This guaranteed consistency between operators of all levels of experience and proficiency.”

The user-centric design of the system, along “with our focus on change-management planning and training, led to quick adoption by their operators, which drove consistent drilling stope performance results across operators irrespective of technology competency and level of experience,” Beilby said.

“The Minnovare Operations team ensures Cracow continues to receive value from their investment through ongoing refresher training as well as daily remote monitoring of our systems and proactive support,” he said. “Our Account Management team works with the client to quantify the financial returns and operational improvements delivered, and regularly presents this data to the team at Cracow.”

That data would speak to the recovery of $42 million worth of gold ounces that were previously considered at risk due to the narrowness of the veins. Mining that gold added a total of $23 million in profit. “That’s a big positive,” Nguyen said, “ensuring we extract the maximum value possible over the remaining life of the mine.”

A similar story is currently unfolding at the RHP mine in Western Australia. The mine was recently purchased by Evolution Mining from Northern Star Resources.

“We implemented the technology on three rigs on site and delivered increased drilling accuracy and consistency,” Beilby said. “We worked with the team to measure the benefits to the operation over the course of the first 12 months of operation.”

And the benefits have been substantial. “Increased drilling accuracy resulted in a 54% reduction in bridged tons,” he said. “This, combined with a faster setup, gave a 31% increase in drilling productivity.”

An additional 1,100 oz were recovered. Annual total gold output increased 8,300 oz or 7%, he said. That translated to an additional $5.5 million in profit for the year.