Epiroc on a boom time for blasthole rig autonomy


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Feb 11, 2024

Epiroc on a boom time for blasthole rig autonomy

Epiroc is already the global leader in blasthole drill autonomy with its full autonomous layer for its line of Pit Viper drills, enhanced now also by the Mobius for Drills fleet management, drilling

Epiroc is already the global leader in blasthole drill autonomy with its full autonomous layer for its line of Pit Viper drills, enhanced now also by the Mobius for Drills fleet management, drilling process and value chain optimisation platform. Now it has added to this line up – announcing on June 1 that testing of the new autonomous Epiroc SmartROC D65 MKII surface drill rig with iron ore mining customer Fortescue, in the Pilbara, WA had fulfilled the baseline KPIs on both productivity and efficiency during a year of intensive tests and trials. This was also a world first, no-one has previously achieved automation on a SmartROC D65.

IM Editorial Director Paul Moore caught up with Christopher Blignaut, Automation Manager, Surface division at Epiroc following the announcement to find out more about the journey and the significance of this development.

Christopher Blignaut, Automation Manager, Surface division at Epiroc

The first point of discussion was on the fact this is the first commercial autonomous boom-type blasthole drill, which of course has a very different duty cycle is very different to that of a large mast type blasthole drill. With large mast type drills, there are differences between whether the machine is automated for single row or multi row. But essentially the drills are levelling and de-levelling and going up and down and following the prescribed drill pattern on a large flat bench. A boom-type crawler drill is called upon to do a greater variety of drilling types, occasionally on more uneven ground – including pre-splitting of benches with sometimes a limited working area as well as contour drilling.

So how did Epiroc succeed in making boom type crawler rigs autonomous – was a whole new approach required and what were the challenges? Blignaut: “We have learnt a lot from the autonomous Pit Viper and we managed to bring a lot of that across into the SmartROC D65. And at the end of the day, while the application is different, the individual machine automation components are largely the same as you are still trying to automate what would traditionally be a manual actuation on the machine. But you are right on the application point – the SmartROC D65 is used for production drilling, pre-split drilling and contour drilling. So on this project we started with production drilling as that’s the closest analogue to the Pit Viper autonomous usage. Pre-splitting came next and we have already begun our trials for that. Contour drilling will be later.”

Blignaut added that for pre-split the thought process or the way to approach it technically isn’t that much different. It will be for contour, which may require additional sensors and more data for planning and designing the drill plans as well as the real time information processing to navigate on uneven terrains.

He added that in its testing for production drilling, it has already done some autonomous angled drilling to reflect situations where the hole may have to be angled. So the solution available today can already do that. No additional sensors were required but some new algorithms were developed to allow for it – all part of the full software development for the application: “A lot of the work we have done leading up to the launch of the autonomous SmartROC D65 has been about taking that software layer and really enhancing it in every way working closely together with our partner Fortescue at the trial site. We think we have made the existing algorithms even better – particularly with a drill like the SmartROC D65 you can’t afford to have any inefficiencies in the existing machine functions if you want to consistently achieve the targets set by the mine operations. We sought to keep the total time it is running fully autonomously as high as possible as that is where we get the KPI upsides.”

Many Pit Viper autonomy customers built up to full autonomy through starting with line of sight and through teleremote – with a stepping stone type approach – though today it is more common to go straight to the end game. How does Blignaut see things evolving for the D65? “We still have those phases or steps available as options to allow us to support our full range of customers but our primary goal has been to be able to deliver full autonomy to the Tier 1 miners from the start, so straight away they can plug their SmartROC D65 rigs into their existing fully autonomous Pit Viper fleet. Also we already had the BenchREMOTE and TeleREMOTE available for the SmartROC D65 so this was all about developing the last and missing layer of full autonomy.”

The SmartROC D65 was already quite a smart machine so already had auto rod handling and auto drilling. Auto tramming had to be added but of course this was already being used on the Pit Viper. “For all these functions it has been a question of improving them – as an example with have done a lot of work with AutoDrill in areas like anti-jam and the cleaning process – which have been improved a lot.”

On to performance – in the release Epiroc stated that the autonomous SmartROC D65 proved its greater efficiency versus the manual version thanks to zero idling time during transitions between tramming, positioning and drilling – which provides consistent efficiency in every hole cycle and reduces the total time spent to complete a drill pattern. Then of course you remove the shift changes and downtime associated with that. Blignaut adds: “Beyond that we also see improved performance due to increased consistency in the drill cycle – the metres drilled per operational hour significantly surpassed what was the baseline for manual drills.”

While Fortescue has been the trial partner on the SmartROC D65 project, Blignaut said that almost every major miner that it has partnered on the autonomous Pit Viper has interest in this and then a significant amount of other miners as well. But some other customers will actually take their first step into blasthole autonomy through a SmartROC D65 as in some cases mid-sized miners use these boom-type rigs as their primary drill fleet. In addition, you have a lot of contractors using the SmartROC D65 who also see the need to go autonomous. So there are a lot of different opportunities.

From a machines point of view, with autonomy working on the SmartROC D65, other SmartROC DTH models and other feed modifications will be next. It is just a question of what the next priority model is based on feedback from customers. “The SmartROC D65 was chosen to be first in these drill types because of the sheer mining sector demand for autonomy. Many major mines already had their autonomous Pit Viper platform drills running in some cases for years. Most of these same sites also run SmartROC D65 rigs and are already mature with their autonomous drilling operation.”

What about the autonomous drill operator/controller interface in the operational centres versus what is being used already for autonomous Pit Viper rigs? Will the autonomous SmartROC D65 just get added to that screen? Blignaut: “The aim is eventually of course to have controllers of both drill types use the same screen and we are going to achieve this with our Common Automation Panel or CAP that will be released later in 2023. But for now you will interface with the SmartROC D65 in a similar way but with slightly different hardware. This reflects the fact that the controls on both drill types are different, and the autonomous controller station mirrors the in-cab controls as there are occasions when the controller needs to intervene – perhaps moving the drill from one production bench to another or if there is an autonomous system problem. CAP will see us standardise the controls, which has its challenges but eventually will come the day where the controller shouldn’t have to take over control at all and there are no manual controls in the drill itself either.”

Lastly the command and control system for these autonomous SmartROC D65 drills. Mobius for Drills, developed by ASI Mining (34% Epiroc) is already compatible with the SmartROC D65 and will act as an integrator with the existing Epiroc autonomous layer on Pit Viper drill fleets – and Blignaut said that its importance will only increase once contour drilling is added and the extra variation in operation that brings. It essentially acts as a fleet and traffic management plus optimisation layer. “The goal is that the autonomous drills get on with drilling but that the drill fleet is executing missions controlled by Mobius for Drills which is the primary autonomous drill management interface.” Mobius for Drills will also allow customers to integrate non-Epiroc drill autonomy with Epiroc drills where they have a mixed drill fleet – and these drills could be automated using expertise and technology from RCT Global, now itself part of Epiroc.