Australia's rapidly expanding multi-billion dollar mining technology and services industry is leading the drive for innovations to boost productivity and efficiency.
As Australian mining exports increase, mining companies are investing significant resources into the development and implementation of remote automation and unmanned machinery to meet this demand.
The isolated geographical locations of many Australian mines, in addition to safety considerations, make remote automation and unmanned machinery an attractive option for mining companies. While traditional automation and robotic technology in the mining industry has comprised standalone autonomous equipment managing a selected process, today it is possible to connect these discrete processes resulting in an integrated, productive mining environment.
The development of smart technologies that enable remote automation and robotics to be available for mining applications is central to driving productivity and efficiency gain. The advancement of technology during the past 10 years, in particular improvements in central processing unit capacity, access to smart technologies, and advanced sensor technology, has enabled the framework for intelligent software development.
Development of intelligent systems
The notion of intelligent software has existed for a long time, but a paradigm shift is occurring in how critical and complex automation systems are designed, configured and controlled. Today, to achieve 'artificial intelligence' is the ultimate goal. A system where the intelligence of machines is such that traits like reasoning, knowledge, planning, learning, communication and perception; provide equipment with the ability to move and manipulate objects to improve commercial outcomes.
In the beginning, an individual computer would perform a sequential task or series of tasks; this progressed to the development of parallel processing which enables a synchronised, coordinated computing platform such as connection to network. Parallel processing is much faster than sequential processing, with large-scale multithreading capabilities allowing for simple repetitive calculations on vast amounts of similar data. Holonic multi-agent systems are composed of autonomous software entities and display increasing complexity; they have the ability to simulate a system or to solve problems and to allow for invaluable integration of technologies in a mining environment.
Currently, the highest level of system capability in operation is referred to as autonomous, cooperating agents. These agents have increased system complexity; able to make collaborative decisions and display the ability to re-configure parameters dynamically. Technology has come a long way but still has its limitations, particularly in supplying technology to continuous operations in remote areas to minimise human involvement. The development of mining machinery displaying 'artificial intelligence' is the ultimate goal. Intelligent systems integrated into machinery that can adapt to environmental conditions, evolve to overcome challenges and self-heal to prevent downtime are being actively developed. Equipment that can interact with its environment and adapt appropriately to increase productivity and sustainability in mining will be a valuable resource.
Automation increases safety and efficiency in mining
The application of automated systems can make a significant contribution towards increasing the efficiency and sustainability of mining operations. The introduction of automation to mining operations can help improve the quality of the work environment for employees by reducing their exposure to potentially dangerous situations. Recent advances in automated control equipment and robotics are expected to result in major improvements in the efficiency and safety of mine machinery. 'Smart Devices" for automation generally consist of an embedded processor, sensors, logic and communications parameters. These devices provide improved control capabilities and can provide significantly more information on the operation and health of system components and the condition of the automation process.
A mining environment is an amalgamation of a set of related processes from drilling, blasting and transporting material through to crushing, grinding and to processing and transportation of production output. Incorporation of remote automation involves the use of sensors that are able to provide data required to control mining and processing operations.
Advances in data processing technologies have met the requirement created by these sensors to analyse individual signals and integrate information from different sensors. Intelligent software development allows computers to autonomously, or at least semi-autonomously interpret the data in ways that can alter parameters of machinery during the mining operation.
The use of software agents in automation allows for the design of more flexible and smarter control architectures. By leveraging an agent communication layer (ACL) on top of communication networks such as EtherNet/IP, a system is able to achieve coordination of dissimilar systems. These ACLs contain a set of message parameters allowing for excellent automation control. The message parameters that are required for effective agent communication will vary according to the situation. Intelligent parameters for the mining industry often includes features such as embedded diagnostics, communications, calibrations and control activities typically performed in a programmable logic controller (PLC) or other distributed control system.
The concept of associating functional system elements with an intelligent agent, provides the basis for excellent system operation, and performance even when unexpected component failure, environmental changes, workload changes, or altered system operating objectives occur. The automation of increasingly complex, critical coupled systems can place a significant demand on centralised automation systems. Intelligent agents can be used to identify faults and then to collaborate and implement a loss mitigation and recovery strategy or a self healing process. Full functionality can be restored by intelligent agents when the faulty element is repaired, therefore reducing costly downtime and increasing productivity of a mine.
The technology of robotics
Robotics is transforming mining around the world as a result of ongoing automation initiatives. Fully automated robotic mining encapsulates mines with smart drills for both production and material identification; precise automatic, remote controlled movement and positioning equipment; automated movement of vehicles such as trucks, and advanced management systems. Recent advances in intelligent software development have fuelled the development of functional robots and their role in mining. Robots offer improved safety, greater productivity and efficiency, and are able to operate in remote, harsh environments.
Automated control technology has already been applied to drilling operations, allowing an operator to set up and operate the equipment remotely. This removes the operator from potentially dangerous zones on the drill rig, open cut or underground mine and increases overall efficiency of the mining operation. Driverless haulage trucks are being developed for open pit mines. Artificial intelligence - incorporating GPS systems, wireless communication and object avoidance sensors enable these trucks to either drive themselves or be driven by an operator at a computer panel away from the mine site. Computer systems that provide information about the velocity and position of the vehicle can prevent accidents and increase the lifetime of the machine. Production loss can be minimised as breakdown frequency declines resulting in improved productivity and profitability in mining.
A significant challenge facing mining today is the increased global demand for minerals and metals while available resources are becoming harder to access due to location and harsh environments. Automation and robotics can help to provide a solution by providing streamlined processes for extracting ore, while reducing the exposure of workers to health risks. New sensing technologies such as GPS, radar and laser systems being incorporated into robotics will have an increasing impact on the safety, predictability, precision and efficiency of mining.
Energy efficiency and sustainability
Automation enhances energy efficiency by reducing variability and increasing consistency in the operation of mining equipment. By using intelligent sensor technology, situational awareness of mining equipment such as a smart drill or driverless truck, can increase productivity and sustainability of the mining operation. There is also a link between automation and emissions reduction resulting from the more consistent operation of equipment. Many benefits stem from this, including reduced fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and operating costs.
The use of robotics in mining will minimise environmental impact by allowing for more selective mining. Environmental monitoring systems can use computerised instruments with wireless communications to accurately monitor and analyse variables such as ground water levels, underground ventilation and temperature changes. These monitoring systems allow companies to monitor and record the environmental impact of their mining activities.
Intelligent devices allow for the control of machinery to optimise and reduce energy and water consumption - valuable resources for the mining industry. Advanced algorithms that can increase embedded computing and distributed intelligent devices are able to provide superior system operation. Advances in intelligent devices have provided automation, control, optimisation and information solutions offering measurable results. Communication with the business enterprise platforms addresses the need for advanced data collection and analysis that facilitate energy-efficient practices.
Future directions of intelligent agents in mining
Advances in intelligent software have lead to significant improvements in automation of processes and development of robotic devices for the mining industry. Mine sites are increasingly adopting robotics to remain at the forefront of mining technology development. Areas of continued focus include advanced analytical techniques to improve maintenance outcomes and efficiency; location awareness of vehicles and equipment, and improved process automation.
Computing platforms are required to operate at faster speeds while continuing to operate under the harsh and extreme conditions found at a mine site. In addition to increased computer power, new algorithms for signal processing, perception and control are being actively developed to help increase the safety, precision and efficiency of mining.
Innovations in information technologies are required to meet the increasing demand for Australian mining exports. A single company cannot do it all; Rockwell Automation recognises the importance of partnering with end-users, consultants, industry specialists and third-party manufacturers to achieve common goals in equipment control. Advanced control technology has taken on new level control algorithms which will take advantage of gaming software for visualisation and self healing software to make adaptive changes to production.
Continued investment in this area will provide the mining industry with greater productivity and improved safety and sustainability.
The ultimate goal is to develop evolutionary, self-healing machinery and equipment that can effectively and efficiently interact with the mining environment.
*Paul McRoberts is the industry solution manager - Initiatives for Rockwell Automation.