14 April 2020
To increase productivity, efficiency, and safety in the Aitik copper mine, Boliden went the automation route. The fleet of Pit Vipers will be remotely controlled by operators.
Swedish mining and smelting company Boliden plans to raise the production quota in the Swedish open-pit copper mine Aitik to 45 million metric tons for 2020. To meet the quota, Boliden needed to strengthen its fleet of Pit Vipers from the current five that are in operation today.
The traditional and obvious solution would be to invest in additional Pit Vipers. Still, Boliden was interested to see if utilizing automation and operating their fleet with tele-remote, and semi-autonomous single-row Pit Vipers could fill the ticket. One reason to convert to remote and autonomous operations is the opportunity to reduce non-drilling time, increase utilization, and gain productivity.
"Some advantages of increased automation are that we can boost the usage rate and be more cost-effective. Also, there's less wear and tear on the drill bits, which positively affects consumable life and decreases maintenance. We get more consistency in drill hole depth and hole accuracy, which produces better blast results,” says"
Aitik is one of Europe’s largest mines and is a world-leading copper operation with a massive pit visible from space. “Its depth is 450 meters and a width of several kilometers, requiring 15–20 minutes of driving time for operators to travel to and from the surface level. There’s also a satellite mine even further away. Lunch breaks in production can last for an hour,” says Peter Palo, Project Manager at Boliden Aitik.
Another factor taken into consideration is the harsh arctic winter climate, with snowstorms and biting cold that reduces visibility, driving safety, and workplace conditions. Both Boliden and Epiroc were curious to see whether automated Pit Vipers could handle these conditions.
The first step was to perform a test with one of the Pit Vipers, converting and upgrading the machine for remote operation. A meeting room in the mine office building was converted into a temporary control room. The WLAN in the pit was updated and fortified to increase coverage and bandwidth. Bolidens were trained to operate the Pit Vipers by remote control. The primary key performance indicators yielded positive results, and the Pit Viper Automation technology received positive feedback from the operators.
“There’s more to converting to automated operations than you’d think. To enjoy the full advantages of automation, you have to systematically change and improve routines, adapting them to the new processes. The lion’s share of the work involves getting people to change their habits to reach the common goal. Boliden has done a tremendous job laying the groundwork for the necessary process changes,” says Fredrik Lindström, Product Manager Automation at Epiroc.
The next step involved converting the other four Pit Vipers for remote operation while upgrading the first Pit Viper to handle single-row autonomous operation. Autonomy, in this case, entails the operator initiating the process, leaving the Pit Viper to drill a whole row of blast holes on its own and move autonomously between drill holes. Once the row is completed, the operator moves and prepares the machine for the next row of holes.
Comparing the semi-autonomous single row Pit Viper with a fully manually operated machine, under optimal conditions, Boliden has measured an increase in utilization from 45–50 percent to 80 percent and a 30 percent increase in productivity.
“We’re very pleased with the results, which is why we’re converting the rest of the Pit Viper fleet to remote operation as a step towards further automation,” says Peter Palo.
The operators handled the transition to remote operations exceptionally well. The transition to remote operations can be attributed in part to how the onsite operations control system was designed to mimic the Epiroc Pit Viper onboard controls with the same configuration.
“We’ve been running by remote for a year now, and everyone is happy. Some of the operators were wary about learning to use the technology, but that settled quickly. They appreciate working together in a control room in the office building. It’s a better work environment, easier to exchange experiences and socialize,” says Peter Palo, continuing: “Handling the winter climate was also a cinch, despite heavy snowfalls and low temperatures for days on end. Even the laser-based Obstacle Detection System coped splendidly during snowfall. The automated systems seem to withstand arctic conditions very well.”