Epiroc is continuing the automation journey it started a decade ago by developing more systems that make drilling operations safer and reduce the risk of injury.
Epiroc joined the automation race earlier than most original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) when it embarked on its vision for the technology 10 years ago.
The company committed to a concept and arrived with the release of the fully automated Pit Viper surface drill rig four years later when automation was still a dream to many in the mining sector.
This put Epiroc ahead of its competitors in the drilling sector, with the company staking claim to the highest population of autonomous drills with genuine OEM systems in the world today.
Operators no longer need to be sitting in a Pit Viper for it to autonomously drill a whole pattern with the click of a button.
Thanks to Epiroc’s autonomous drill plan execution (ADPE) control system, the job is done without any human intervention, making Epiroc the only OEM in the market that has created drill equipment with this ability.
Epiroc product manager – surface division, Milan Ivovic, says the removal of an operator from the machine extends its benefits to operational tasks such as water filling.
“One of our customers in Australia has used a big funnel to fill their Pit Viper drill rig’s water tank from a distance, shooting water into the drill in a very predicted way without having to come out of his truck. This is a non-traditional way of doing this job,” he tells Safe to Work.
“It minimises personnel’s exposure to the drill as something can drop on your head or a hose can blow if you’re in close proximity to it. Neither do you have to stop the drill and experience downtime, lifting your productivity. This is how technology helps safety.”
Epiroc is committed to the journey of taking workers out of harm’s way by reducing their exposure to equipment, developing the world’s first electric autonomous drill, which operates at Boliden’s Aitik copper mine in Sweden.
Boliden Aitik project manager Peter Palo says the company decided to explore the possibilities of remote controlled and automated open pit and underground machines for the safety and work environment benefits they offer a few years ago.
“We don’t need any drivers sitting in shaking drills. Now they sit in a control centre in the company of colleagues. They don’t have to work alone, and safety is improved,” Palo says.
“Our overall drilling machine utilisation is much higher. Our vision is to have as much as possible running via automation and remote control.”
After years of successful operation with the Pit Viper, the OEM is extending the same capability for full automation to its smaller SmartROC rig.
The company is targeting a full implementation of automation on SmartROC this year to allow for minimum human intervention in drilling operations.
“Drilling with minimum intervention means less exposure to injury risks, and that means improved safety for people,” Ivovic says.
In a similar fashion, Epiroc is implementing Live Work Elimination, which will allow a worker to do oil sampling without manually taking the sample from the drill.
“Like taking a blood sample from the body, this job generally needs someone to come close to the object to take the sample and bring it to the lab,” Ivovic says. “But with the principle of Live Work Elimination, we’re developing a device that contains small bottles that are capable of autonomously taking an oil, fuel or liquid sample from the drill rig over a timespan, allowing the job to be done remotely.
“A worker only needs to spend a minute to take the bottles away with them instead of spending 20 minutes taking the sample themselves, meaning they’ll be 20 times less exposed to the chance of getting injured in the workplace.”
Having excelled in all the automation technologies that are incorporated in a drill rig, Epiroc is replicating this operational excellence to drill rigs maintenance.
“We are a data-driven company. And we are no longer tech amateurs because we know how our sensors, cameras, data loggers and Bluetooth devices – technologies that we have used in drilling operations – work in a high-risk environment,” Ivovic says.
“We know how to align them with better maintenance to create a safer workplace. Combining them with remote diagnostic tools, operators will know within seconds exactly the machine temperature, systems temperature and the health of components compared with their expected levels while staying seated in the office.”
Operators can almost immediately query the unfavourable condition of a component and make changes remotely.
They can also better predict the next repair schedule and replacements, leading to fewer unpredicted breakdowns and a safer work environment.
After all, unplanned breakdowns are situations when people are most exposed to an injury risk, according to Ivovic. Such detailed attention to safety has established Epiroc as a leader in the market that extends to the area of equipment ergonomics.
Still, the company continues to develop systems that will make drilling operations and maintenance safer, reinforcing that autonomous mining is truly a journey.
This article also appears in the Mar-Apr issue of Safe to Work.