The Future of Autonomous Mining
The AutoMine Concept Underground Drill is the next generation of autonomous drilling. The cabinless battery-electric machine is the company’s next evolutionary step in automation.
ONLY THE SOUND of stone crunching beneath four vast tires comes from the consuming darkness of the mine. The tunnel is suddenly illuminated by a bank of blinding bright lights, revealing a massive twin-boom development drill rig in orange and black but with no driver. You are standing face-to-face with the future of underground mining.
“Every drilling rig and drilling jumbo in the world must have a name. We affectionately chose ‘Amelia’ because it means ’industrious’– an adjective that neatly describes Sandvik’s AutoMine Concept Underground Drill. This is the second technology demonstrator for our autonomous mining vision, following the AutoMine Concept Loader we introduced two years ago,” says Jussi Puura, Digitalization Research Lead at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.
The Concept Loader was the world’s first fully autonomous underground mining machine explicitly built for automation. Now, Sandvik has expanded its vision from autonomous mucking to designing the next generation of autonomous drilling and continuing to push the boundaries of mining automation.
Sandvik selected the development drill as its next Concept Vehicle to demonstrate that autonomy can work effectively in a mine’s development phase and constantly changing environments. “We had to design a drill rig that would be fully autonomous, cabinless, battery electric, and be able to plan and execute the entire drilling cycle. So, it had to tram to the location, drill the pattern, and return home to charge for the next cycle. It was a challenge,” he laughs, adding, “We also wanted to make communication with the machine as easy as chatting with a co-worker.”
MIKKO VALTEE, ELECTRIFICATION Technologies and Machinery Systems Manager at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, explains that the project demanded much to be accomplished quickly, which meant that systems had to be developed in parallel and brought together as a fully functional concept. To achieve that, they had to completely create the autonomy software before the physical unit was even constructed using simulator environments.
He adds, “While the base machine was being built, we were already fine-tuning all the autonomy in detail using the simulator. We tested the drilling, navigation, route planning and all the new features, such as extreme cornering and auto-leveling. It was much more cost-efficient, faster and safer to test everything in the virtual environment first.”
Sandvik also has a state-of-the-art test mine at its production unit in the Finnish city of Tampere. It provides real mine conditions for rapid prototype testing and underground equipment quality assurance verification. Valtee likens it to a playground, saying, “We can trial, test, and we have our assembling people here, so this is a luxury. But this is what it takes to get these unique projects done.”
Puura agrees, noting that it’s been a long journey from the beginning to this point. “I couldn’t be happier with how the Concept Drill has turned out. We’ve had a great team working on this since 2021. They have come from all divisions of Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, are all truly dedicated professionals in their area, and have a passion to win.”
UNVEILED AND DEMONSTRATED for the first time at a customer event in Tampere in September 2022, the fully functional AutoMine Concept Underground Drill is not being introduced by Sandvik as a commercial product.
Elen Toodu, Director of Global Automation Product Line & Projects at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, states, “We intend to showcase what next-generation intelligent innovations are coming over the next few years. The Concept Drill will act as an in-house platform for testing and developing new technologies our customers identify as crucial to their operations, which will then be introduced for current and future Sandvik offerings.”
While not initially for sale, she underscores that this concept is designed to show Sandvik’s customers that incorporating new automation and high-end technology in actual underground mining operations can be effortless.
“We are working hard to make automation more accessible and usable in the mining industry. Some features will be available as standalone products and others as upgrades or options for existing products or equipment.”
Due to being fully autonomous, the AutoMine Concept Underground Drill does not possess an operator cabin. This has created extra space for onboard water and battery storage, eliminating the need for supply cables or water hoses during operation. In addition, the onboard battery supply has a longer duration because the self-contained drill uses and optimizes power and electricity based on need.
According to Puura, “Once the drill rig knows to which tunnel and face it should work on, it can plan the rest of its mission autonomously using data from mine planning software like iSURE and Deswik. For example, drilling and blasting patterns, tunnel lines, and profiles are designed in iSURE for optimal hole placement, detonation and and profile quality. The machine executes and adapts them in the real environment as it works.”
During drilling, it uses an AI-guided automatic drill bit changer to identify when bits are worn and change them automatically. There is also a lifter tube installer that simplifies the face charging procedure. Compatible with traditional safety gate systems or working without area isolation, it will only ask for assistance when refilling consumables and recharging. However, if it is unsure of environmental changes, it can request intervention from an operator in the control room via the mine’s 5G or Wi-Fi network.”
Since the AutoMine Concept Underground Drill has instant access to 3D models of a site, which are automatically merged from survey and mapping results, the drill rig can update and optimize the 3D model of the mine in real time based on feedback from its onboard cameras and scanners. “From entry to exit, it is continuously learning and adapting to the ever-changing environment so it can safely complete entire missions,” says Puura.
For Toodu, its self-planning of the route is one of the fascinating features on board the AutoMine Concept Underground Drill. “The effective use of a large machine underground is enabled by our automatic boom collision avoidance system, which assists in the agile navigation of tight spaces. Once at its destination, it uses the automatic drill plan adjustment to optimize and adapt the drilling pattern and drill the full round.”
Thanks to the rapid advancement of battery technologies, Puura envisages equipment like this to one day execute the entire drilling cycle on battery power, eliminating the need to plug into a grid. He adds that modules like mapping kits, 3D positioning and obstacle detection are coming to the market soon as separate products and features in the Sandvik offering.
WITH THE FUTURE of underground mining rapidly evolving, Sandvik recognizes that one of the most significant changes will be the adoption of autonomous technologies. The increasing demand for minerals and resources and the need to optimize productivity means mining companies must recognize autonomous technologies and revolutionize operations. For Toodu, the future will see an increasing number of autonomous machines and systems that will perform tasks traditionally done by human workers: “From drilling and blasting to hauling and loading, as these technologies evolve and become more sophisticated, the potential for increased efficiency, safety and profitability in the mining industry is immense.”