May 4, 2000 -- Within five years, robots will operate large parts of Australia's underground mining industry, CSIRO's deputy chief executive for minerals and energy, Dr Bruce Hobbs said today.
The Arthur C.Clarke/Isaac Asimov vision of robotic industries, science fiction only a few years ago, is poised to become reality in the Australian mining sector driven by the twin needs for safety and efficiency.
Dr Hobbs says research teams at CSIRO are trialling and developing a range of giant robotic mining devices, that will either operate themselves under human supervision or else be "driven" by a miner, in both cases from a safe, remote location.
"It is all about getting people out of hazardous environments," he says.
Robots will be doing jobs like laying explosives, going underground after blasting to stabilize a mine roof or mining in areas where it is impossible for humans to work or even survive.
Examples of the trend to mining automation include:
* tele-operated and automated load-haul-dump trucks that self-navigate through tunnels, clearing the walls by centimetres
* the world's largest "robot", a 3500 tonne coal dragline featuring automated loading and unloading
* a robot device for drilling and bolting mine roofs to stabilize them after blasting
* a pilotless burrowing machine for mining in flooded gravels and sands underground, where human operators cannot go
* a robotic drilling and blasting device for inducing controlled caving.Safety is one of the key factors driving the trend to automation. In the ten years between 1988 and 1998, 256 miners died and over 64,000 were injured in mining accidents.
Dr Peter Corke, principal research scientist with CSIRO's Manufacturing Science and Technology says that efficiency is also imperative if a mine is to survive and automation can play a large role in this.
"World metal prices have been falling for decades due to increases in efficiency. If a mine is unable to become more productive, it will go out of business," he says.
"One way automation can help is by reducing the huge operational costs that exist largely because you put people into hazardous environments".
"These costs include making a mine safe and habitable for humans to work in. For example, in an underground mine a lot of this cost goes into getting good quality, cooled air into the labyrinth of tunnels. Machines can operate with lower requirements, reducing the need for expensive infrastructure".
Robots must demonstrate efficiency gains or cost savings. The biggest robot of them all, the automated dragline swing has the potential to save the coal mining industry around $280 million a year by giving a four per cent efficiency gain. Major production trials of this robot are planned for later in the year 2000.
Unlike their counterparts commonly found in the manufacturing industry, mining robots have to be smart. They need to sense their world, just like humans.
"Mining robots need sensors to measure the three dimensional structure of everything around them. As well as sight, robots must know where they are placed geographically within the minesite in real time and online," says Dr Corke.
"CSIRO is developing vision systems for robots using cameras and laser devices to make maps of everything around the machine quickly and accurately, as it moves and works in its ever-changing environment," he says.
Dr Corke insists that the move to robots will not eliminate human miners, but it will change their job description.
"Instead of placing themselves in hazardous areas to do repetitive and arduous tasks people will manage the operation of the robots. Mines will also need programmers, technicians and repair people," he says.
"Mining can be a hazardous job. Getting robots to do the job will make mining safer and ensure the long-term viability of the industry".
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