A revolutionary approach to drilling

A remotely operated Epiroc drill pictured at BHP’s Yandi mine in the Pilbara. Image: Epiroc.

Drilling activities will always demand due care and attention but technology is helping to make things safer for operators in numerous ways. Safe to Work reports.

Drilling is a hazardous operation that presents several risks for mining operators. There are several methods available to miners — such as reverse circulation (RC), sonic, diamond core, air core and augers — all presenting dangers if risk is not managed correctly.

Moving or rotating parts present a serious hazard, and hand injuries are the leading cause of drilling-related injuries. Clothes, hair and limbs pose the biggest catch risks in particular, leading to the potential for serious injuries, including scalping, amputation or even death.

Ensuring appropriate work wear and personal protective equipment (PPE) are worn, including safety hats, as well as removing jewellery, helps to prevent catching when in the vicinity of rotating and moving drill parts such as heads, masts, rods, drive shafts and several other components.

Compressed air and hydraulic systems are also a cause for concern. If an inadequate type of hose or coupling is used, a sudden expulsion of air can cause hoses and couplings to become untethered from their fittings, risking serious damage to nearby staff. This risk also extends to hydraulics as well, with the added risk of flammability.

Modern technologies such as automation, robotics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are helping to reduce the risks associated with drilling, however.

Remote drill rigs are becoming an increasingly popular option, with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Epiroc, Sandvik, Komatsu and Caterpillar among the notable equipment companies proving their mettle in this area.

In March 2019, for example, Sandvik introduced an operator-training simulator for its line of remote underground drill rigs to provide operators with a quicker way to gain familiarity with the systems.

On the producer side, Rio Tinto is one of the more notable proponents of the technology, having conducted its first autonomous drill system (ADS) tests in 2008. The miner today boasts a fleet of 20 autonomous drills at its Pilbara operations, including West Angelas and Yandicoogina. Operators at Rio Tinto’s remote operations centre (ROC) in Perth are responsible for monitoring the drills.

These wireless remote controlled rigs remove operators from the vicinity of the drilling area, eliminating the associated physical dangers, as well as ancillary dangers from dust, cabin vibration and excessive noise exposure. Through the use of cameras, the drill systems are also capable of providing an improved field of view during operations by providing cameras.

Peter Jacobs, Asia-Pacific vice president of French drilling company Foraco International, has commented in a Global Business Reports interview that the separation of people and equipment with remote drill rigs is “the key to diminishing risks”.

In reference to his own company’s drilling technology, Jacobs claims, “We thought that the operators would present some resistance to the technology, but they much prefer to operate the rig from a distance.”

Technology helps to reduce risks in indirect ways as well. Plasma drilling, while a relatively nascent field in the mining and oil and gas industries, has the potential to offer several benefits, for example.

A plasma drill made by Slovakian company GA Drilling.

 

Plasma drilling ejects superheated plasma capable of cutting through steel and hard rock. This is beneficial not just for the potential performance efficiencies it could bring to mining once properly commercialised, but for safety as well. Plasma drills have no moving parts, which eliminate catching issues associated with rotating bits.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) senior research engineer Paul Woskov has developed a ‘millimetre-wave’ gyrotron beam based on similar principles that is capable of cutting through hard rock.

Since the beam is capable of crumbling rocks such as granite at temperatures just below melting point, the technology could be applicable to delicate situations where explosives can’t be used or vibrations need to be kept to a minimum.

In addition, the beam could be shaped to meet the needs of the underground environment in order to increase the tunnel’s structural strength.

“The millimetre-wave beam does not rotate so the shape of the beam will determine the shape of the borehole cross section,” says Woskov. “By using circular or elliptical shaped launch waveguides we have produced circular and elliptical holes in basalt in the laboratory.

“Using an elliptical-shaped bore hole aligned with the asymmetric subsurface stresses will increase the collapse strength of a borehole by factors of 10 or more.”

Closer to home, Geothermal Industries Australia (GIA) is also investing in geothermal drilling technologies that can help to improve the environment by delivering energy solutions from heat found in the ground. GIA managing partner and general manager Clint Patzack says the company has invested in several drilling technologies to achieve its goals.

“In the geothermal space in Australia, for renewable energy cooling systems we are using multiple drilling technologies, one of which is a technology that allows us to install casing to deeper depths using dual rotary technology, which is contributing to the success of more and more geothermal boreholes,” he says.

This is just a small sampling of projects representing new ways to approach what is one of mining’s most essential activities.

Drilling is an important contributor to Australia’s mining success, and these and other continued developments in the drilling technology space are helping to contribute to an improved safety culture for both workers and the environment.

This article also appears in the Apr-Jul 2019 edition of Safe to Work.