A team of Australian scientists is developing the world’s largest industrial robot - a massive beast 75 metres tall, weighing 3500 tonnes and able to devour 150 tonnes of rock in a single bite.
The giant robot is emerging from research designed to instal a computer “brain” in a dragline, the huge walking crane with a 100-metre-long boom, used to scoop up blasted rock in open-cut coal mines.
A team from the Co-operative Research Centre for Mining Technology and Equipment (CMTE) and CSIRO Manufacturing Science and Technology, is devising a computerised system that will automate part of the operations of the dragline, improving productivity and sparing both operator and equipment strain.
Their world-first achievement has attracted international scientific attention, and was recently featured by US space agency NASA in its “Cool Robot of the Week” web site.
“A dragline picks up from 100 to 300 tonnes of fragmented rock with every scoop, then swings it round and delivers it to the spoil pile, then swings back again,” explains CSIRO researcher Dr Jonathan Roberts.
“It also swings back and forth once a minute, so the smoother and more efficient you can make the operation, the less wear and tear on the machine, the more rock is moved and the less strain on the dragline’s human operator.”
The aim of the project is to automate the parts of the operation where the dragline carries its full load from the pick-up point to the dump point, and then returns to collect a new bucketful.
“We liken it to cruise-control in a motor vehicle. It will offer the operator the option of automating the repetitive parts of the process, which account for up to 80 per cent of operating time, allowing him to focus on the more challenging and skilled tasks.”
It also has some resemblance to the autopilot in a passenger jet aircraft - especially as a dragline, at $60-100 million, costs about the same as a commercial jet.
“The dragline is essentially 1950s technology. It’s fairly low-tech. What we’re doing is retrofitting it with a brain,” Dr Roberts explains.
It has been estimated that increasing the productivity of a dragline by around 4 per cent, which may not sound all that much - would save the typical Australian coal mine $3 million a year, or $280 million for Australia as a whole. Any productivity improvements gained using the automated swing control system have yet to be quantified, but it is hoped that 4 per cent is possible.
The system is being trialled on a dragline located at Tarong Coal’s Meandu Mine, near Kingaroy, in Queensland.
Latest tests have demonstrated co-ordinated computer control of the hoist, drag and swing functions and placement of the 40 tonne bucket gently on the ground, ready for loading, with the computer moving the dragline’s pedals and levers.
“We were able to move this particular machine, which weighs 3500 tonnes, just using a computer mouse!” Dr Roberts says.
The dragline’s human operator “teaches” his robot partner the exact places where the coalface and spoil pile are using a joystick. The computer memorises them and then performs the operation more smoothly than its human mentor. In time, says Dr Roberts, they may be able to add a radar sensor to the boom to help the computer locate its targets.
CMTE’s work in automating the dragline swing cycle is funded by a consortium consisting of: Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP), Rio Tinto, BHP Australia Coal Pty Ltd, CSIRO and CMTE. Valuable support has been provided by Bucyrus (Australia), Tritronics Pty Ltd and the staff of Meandu mine.
More information:Dr Jonathan Roberts, CSIRO firstname.lastname@example.org
Materials provided by CSIRO Australia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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