Straight down to business
Archean rock in eastern Finland is rich in metals, but also in challenges. SmartROC CL has proven it can withstand the harsh conditions of the Terrafame mine and drill the straight holes required for successful blasting.
April 21, 2023
On a dusty mine road high in the Andes Mountains, a monstrous truck the size of a house rumbles past with its load of 300 tons of ore. Glancing up through the blinding Andean sunlight, the observer struggles to catch a glimpse of the driver in the cabin. That’s because there isn’t one. The machines have taken over the mine. At Quellaveco, Anglo American’s latest copper mine, the mining multinational is presenting a vision of what mining will look like in the future.
Built in Moquegua at a cost of approximately USD 5.5 billion, the mine is expected to produce around 300 000 metric tons annually of copper (plus molybdenum) over the next decade, consolidating Peru’s position as the second largest supplier of the red metal behind neighboring Chile.
One of the largest copper deposits on the planet, the new mine is expected to continue churning out metals for decades to come.
Following a preprogrammed route, the twenty-eight driverless trucks patrol the pit, queueing up to receive blasted ore or waste from the power shovel and then hauling it to the primary crusher or stockpiles, as required. When they meet each other or another vehicle en route, they stop while they work out who has right of way.
Epiroc is playing its part with six autonomous Pit Viper drill rigs. Standing almost twenty meters high when in position, the vehicles automatically trundle into place to a series of blastholes.
Quellaveco is far from the first mine to introduce autonomous vehicles. From Australia to Chile, mining companies are racing to introduce new technologies into their operations, to improve productivity, safety and working conditions for employees. But it will be the first greenfield mine project to implement the technology in its initial design.
Safety is one of the major gains with autonomous haulage and drilling. Not only are workers kept out of harm’s way, but the machines are programmed to be much more cautious than human operators would be.
"We’ve not had a single incident caused by an autonomous machine. And in fact, the autonomous machines have prevented what may have been more serious incidents had they been conventionally operated."
Autonomous vehicles have also proved more productive than conventional machines, maintaining a regular pace throughout the day. In addition, the Pit Viper rigs have proved more accurate than human operators, drilling all holes within 50 centimeters of the location specified in their preprogrammed drill pattern and to the specified length. Accuracy with conventional rigs can be more like 0.8 – 1.2 meters.
This precision is crucial for ensuring that explosives are properly distributed throughout the rock to obtain the correct fragmentation. This, in turn, facilitates the whole mining process, from how quickly rock can be shoveled, its safe distribution in the trucks, and how efficiently it can be pummeled into powder in the crusher.
“It’s critically important to the process,” explains Sanders. But running a digital mine brings new challenges for Anglo American’s mine engineers. To stay in contact with dozens of autonomous vehicles while they move around the pit means ensuring that sufficient broadband spectrum is available in all parts of the operation and at all times.
That can be difficult given the mine’s mind-boggling topography, with mine fronts spread over several stories along a sinuous mountain ravine, explains Drill and Blast Superintendent Akemi Lucero.
Initially, given the tight spaces in which they were operating, the system required one trailer within a hundred meters of each rig or risk the equipment grinding to a halt several times each shift. But adopting a stronger network technology, the engineers were able to largely eliminate the stoppages and significantly increase productivity.
“I think that this has been a learning experience for Epiroc too, as the support they have provided is different in each operation,” says Lucero.
So far, the quickest solution is to send teams of technicians out with brooms and cloths in an endless fight against the filth to keep the sensors sparkling. As that runs counter to Quellaveco’s autonomous philosophy, the maintenance team is also working on an automated blower system that would keep the dust off around the clock.
But building a digital mine has also brought new opportunities. Given the different skills required to run autonomous haulage and drilling equipment, Anglo American has recruited many newcomers with no previous experience and trained them from scratch.
"Two-thirds of our workers never worked in mining before, which is very unique. Many did not even have a driving license before they joined us."
Karen Huamantuma, a recent graduate in Mine Engineering from nearby National University of Moquegua, is one of the new recruits. Her fingers skim over the keyboard as she monitors two Pit Viper rigs drilling several hundred meters away. Above her head, a large screen indicates fuel and water levels on each machine and shows their progress through the sequences of holes they must bore.
“We never studied anything like this. I mean, we didn’t know it existed,” she says. Seated in an ergonomic office chair, she reckons the biggest gain has been the comfort and the convenience.
"We are not exposed to the dirt and dust or at risk from a rockfall or anything like that…this is more comfortable than being at home."
Another gain has been the streamlining of decision-making. In a low hut on the edge of the mine sits Quellaveco’s mission control. Here, twenty or so engineers, like Huamantuma, huddle in front of long curved screens monitoring every aspect of the mine operation, from drilling and hauling to milling and shipping.
With all the key players now in one room, identifying challenges and coordinating a response can take just a few minutes rather than half a day’s discussion. For example, if metal recoveries fall in the concentrator mill because of lower copper grades, a quick word from the plant operator to the mine planner can ensure the mine begins extracting richer ore
“We can see data trends before there’s a real issue and take corrective action before it was ever a problem,” explains Mancell.