Automation at full blast

Autonomous technology can enable mines to achieve their respective goals in cost, productivity and zero harm; this includes significant benefits from autonomous blasthole drilling. Ailbhe Goodbody finds out more

Ailbhe Goodbody
 Sandvik AutoMine includes a remote operator station where the operator can control fleet of rigs

Sandvik AutoMine includes a remote operator station where the operator can control fleet of rigs

Autonomy enables mines to move operators away from dusty conditions, machine vibration and noise and place them in an environment that minimises their risk.

"The key advantage of autonomous drill operation is removing the operator from potentially hazardous conditions and enabling the operator to work in a safe, secure environment," says Mason Biernat, autonomous drilling application specialist, Cat MineStar Solutions at Caterpillar. "The drill itself is left to safely complete its assigned work."

Demetre Harris, product manager, automation at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology, however, notes: "The ability to remove people from the mining environment is great within itself, but it is only a fraction of the benefits achieved through autonomous drilling. In mining, we ensure that safety is engrained in every product, process and person on a mining operation. Autonomous drilling supports the regulations, training and numerous inspections that we carry out on a daily basis when working in the mining environment."

In addition to the safe working conditions for operators, there is also no need to shut down for human-required breaks and shift changes. Without having operators onboard, the drilling solution can operate through shift changes, lunch breaks and some blasts; this increases utilisation and productivity, as well as providing greater consistency and accuracy over a long shift.

"Consistency is increased by the drill continuously operating and producing results to design with the correct hole position and drilled depth for every hole," explains Harris. "Automated solutions may not always be faster than the best operator drilling holes one through five; but the consistency over an entire shift proves to outperform fatigued operators."

Guilherme Paiva, global automation lead, underground drilling at Epiroc, says: "By using digital drill plans and navigation you eliminate the need for manual drill hole marking, which means better accuracy and time savings. The data collected during drilling can be used to monitor system behaviour in various rock conditions and to evaluate plan execution."

In the long-term, autonomous drilling means reduced downtime and increased availability due to less damage to the drill; this is because automation uses the rig within designed operating limits and methods, minimising equipment strain. Reduced damage due to automated functions means lower maintenance costs due to less wear and tear.

Biernat comments: "Autonomous drills always work within the standards established by the manufacturer, and that promotes longer consumable life and less unplanned maintenance."

As a result, mining operations can progress faster, improve fragmentation - when coupled with an effective blasting programme - and lower component costs from reduced machine maintenance repairs.

The benefits translate across the entire mineral excavation value chain as well. The easier blasting and improved fragmentation from autonomous drilling cause less damage on load and haul equipment, which saves maintenance costs for the entire operations fleet. Mike Rikkola, director of analytics at Komatsu Mining, says: "Blasthole drilling is an early step in the entire mining and extraction process, and precise adherence to plan provides productivity benefits for the loading and hauling cycles due to properly blasted material."

There are also benefits for hard rock operations that utilise crushers. Harris suggests: "The better the fragmentation, the faster the feed rate at the crusher and the less energy required to process the material."

Autonomous drilling has a positive environmental impact as well. Harris says: "By ensuring that the equipment is consistently operated within specifications, the amount of energy and fuel burned is reduced, resulting in a more efficient drilling operation."

The benefits can extend to the workforce, too. One worker can operate multiple drill rigs, which means better utilisation of skilled operators; they can also assist less experienced drill operators.

"Another general often misconstrued benefit to autonomous drilling is its impact on the labour force in the mining industry," notes Harris. "Autonomous drilling reduces the operator-to-machine contact, making operations safer, and shifts employment needs to roles around maintenance of the technical/mechanical systems, solution monitoring and change/process management."

Rikkola points out that automation helps in bridging the workforce skills gap. He says: "Whether you have new or tenured employees, autonomous operation helps level-set your operation."

Paiva adds: "The automated functions also create possibilities to hire less experienced labour, in times when it's hard to recruit."


There are opportunities to introduce automation and information technologies to most mining operations, as some form of automation will be suitable. "Different levels of autonomy and integration can be achieved depending on the expectations, type of application and the technology strategy," says Paiva.

However, there are many challenges that some operations face when attempting to progress towards full blasthole drilling fleet automation. "One of the biggest challenges is the autonomous readiness of the mining operation," comments Harris. "Autonomous blasthole drilling isn't a feature that is enabled with a flip of a switch. Change management processes must be considered and implemented to assist in transitioning an operation from a manual operation to fully autonomous operation."



The most important information a drill rig collects is the data about the holes, says Sandvik's Severi Eerola

The benefits of applying autonomous drilling solutions at a mine depend on both the mining application and technology culture of a mine site. Severi Eerola, product line manager at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology, says: "First of all, the mine site needs to have sufficient competence to successfully work with electrical control systems, networking and software-based systems and needs to have safe working procedures to work with autonomous systems."

However, he cautions: "Today sampling and drill bit changes are typically not fully autonomous, and if the mining application requires very frequent sampling during drilling, or frequent bit changes, the benefits of autonomous operation are reduced. Or if there are other reasons to have people continuously working close to machines that make the safe drilling operation more challenging."

Rikkola agrees: "Upfront infrastructure requirements around communications and positioning technologies need to be in place for automated blasthole drilling to be effectively put into operation."

An additional factor for implementing automated blasthole drilling is the ability to manage change, as there is a lot of change management that takes place when converting to autonomous machines. Biernat states: "Caterpillar understands these challenges in terms of mining process changes, the additional layers of safety that come with a robotic machine, the transition of an operator to working outside the cab rather than inside, additional personnel training and more."

Commitment from top management is key to guarantee engagement from all stakeholders and to develop competences. Paiva says there can be hesitation and natural resistance from the workforce to new processes, procedures and technologies, so it is important to "constantly motivate people to use new features in order to gain experience, improve the systems and add consistency to the implementation."

As a result, each phase of the transition must consider workforce training. In addition, Harris notes: "Some operations have a unionised workforce and must adhere to the requirements of the union. Other operations have regulations with the government that a percentage of the local workforce that must be acquired from local towns."

Other important factors to consider include processes regarding maintenance and regulatory compliance, as well as the development of new KPIs (key performance indicators) to measure success.

"Mature process controls around the autonomous platform are an important step, and if missing, it makes it difficult to take full advantage of the benefits of autonomy, while minimising risks to people and equipment," says Rikkola. "We mitigate the risk and simplify the process for sites looking to rollout Komatsu drill automation through site audits, conducted by certified service engineers equipped to integrate and cater to the infrastructure each mine has built."

Other companies take similar steps to help their customers mitigate risk. Biernat tells GDI: "Caterpillar helps mitigate the potential operational pain points of going straight from manned operation to an autonomous operation by providing a building block approach to autonomy. Each block of technology is designed to help a customer increase automation and smoothly transition to autonomous drilling."

OEM automation options

GeoDrilling International spoke to several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) about their autonomous blasthole drilling solutions.


The Caterpillar autonomous drilling proposition is a multi-stage solution, which starts at high-precision operator guidance and builds to a fully autonomous drill. "Cat Command for drilling is designed to allow mines to enter the drill technology arena at their own pace and at the level of automation that best fits their application," says Biernat. "Every additional layer of technology builds on the benefits of the previous technology building block."

The first level of drill technology in this solution, beyond the base drill automation functions is Terrain for drilling. "Cat Terrain for drilling uses state-of-the-art, high-precision guidance technologies to enable operators to drill holes in the exact location and to the exact elevation specified by the plan, resulting in smoother, safer and more efficient blasting," he explains.

"The next building block is Operator Mission Assist, which automates the entire drill cycle - autonomously positioning accurately over a hole, auto-levelling, angling the mast to the target angle and drilling, all while the operator remains in the cab of the machine. Operator Mission Assist increases the consistency of drilling while providing productivity benefits."

Operator Mission Assist provides users with the consistency and the accuracy of an autonomous solution without the need of additional site infrastructure for remote operations. It also reduces the amount of training that is usually required with a fully autonomous system, as the solution is integrated into the base machine displays.

Biernat says that Terrain for drilling and Command for drilling add robust reporting capabilities on top of the already present health monitoring system (Product Link Elite) on the Caterpillar drill models. "With Terrain and Command, site managers can look at operational data across the fleet of drills to determine the productivity, utilisation and availability of their machines," he says. "With Command, a mine can compare the productivity of autonomous machines against manned machines."

A key dataset recorded with Terrain for drilling through the Strata Recognition feature is the measured while drilling data of the rock characteristics at a granular level. "One of the outputs of this is a stratigraphical representation of the rock structure using a blastability index to show the relative rock hardness of the bench being drilled hole by hole," says Biernat. "Terrain's Strata Recognition feature allows our customers to better understand the geological structure throughout the bench. This enables more accurate blast planning, which in turn produces fragmentation that better matches the plan."

Caterpillar has customers throughout the world using different levels of Command for drilling technologies; many are using Operator Mission Assist to achieve better hole consistency, greater positional accuracy and decreases in cycle times.



Three Cat MD6310 drills working semi-autonomously


"Sites are using semi-autonomy to achieve increases in their drill utilisation and productivity," explains Biernat. "Command customers are converting usual idle time, such as lunch breaks, safety meetings and shift changes, into drilling time. The ability of one operator to oversee multiple drills also has helped resolve issues with the availability of skilled operators."


Epiroc's drilling automation package features a series of functions that combine onboard and tele-remote functionalities for monitoring, drill planning and autonomous operation.

The company's Rig Control System is an automation platform with a modular and interchangeable structure, composed of modules, sensors, control panels and cameras.

It provides a number of safety and interlock features, as well as a foundation to add new functionality or options later without a major rebuild of the machine. Users can run drills with an operator on board using options such as Autodrill and Autolevel; alternatively, they can run with the operator off the drill with the optional BenchREMOTE package, allowing one operator to run one or multiple units.

"Epiroc's option ABC [Advanced Boom Control] Regular enables execution of one hole automatically," says Paiva. "While with the ABC Total is a fully autonomous ring that can be executed according to a digital drill plan, with a high level of precision."


Epiroc's Rig Control System is an automation platform with a modular and interchangeable structure

Automatic logging functions in the Epiroc Rig Control System allow the operator to access performance data and events, record production and maintenance data and evaluate rig performance and production data for each round, maintenance and statistics.

"Data from Epiroc's telematics solution Certiq can provide customers with valuable insights of their operations and opportunities for improvement through data analytics," comments Paiva. "In this case, drilled metres, warnings, alarms and operation hours (engine, pumps, percussion) can provide miners with relevant insights of operational gaps and opportunities for improvement."

In addition, execution based on digital drill plans and operational settings can result in less human interference, less variability and more predictability.

Paiva says: "Epiroc 6th Sense is our answer to the mining and infrastructure industries' need for digitalisation as an enabler for the above safety and productivity gains. We use a holistic approach to apply our knowledge, experience and cutting-edge automation and information management technology for each operation."


Komatsu's drill automation technology is made up of several key building blocks: an automation controller; situational awareness technologies (cameras, LiDAR and radar); and a GPS receiver. Algorithms convert the information from the hardware to identify the machine state and execute the appropriate autonomous task.

The company offers several levels of blasthole drill automation. "The most basic automation level is passive automation," notes Rikkola. "Passive automation provides onboard blasthole pattern mapping, provides additional camera views and uses LiDAR and radar to notify the operator of objects around the drill.



A Komatsu ZT44 blasthole drill

"An operator-assist level of automation is effectively an autopilot function. The system executes drilling, levelling and tramming tasks, while the onboard operator manages any exceptions that may occur. The full autonomous level removes the operator from the machine and from most machine operations, only stepping in to remotely manage exceptions."

He says that the same information required to autonomously operate a drill can also be leveraged to identify strata to better optimise hole loading and pattern design. "Drilling data can also be used to optimise and tune autodrilling algorithms for site-specific strata conditions, improving metre-per-hour performance," he adds. "Data from LiDAR and radar systems will help mines identify compliance to autonomous area access protocols, as well as drill pattern bench quality."

Data security is just one aspect of Komatsu's machine data governance strategy. "Data must be secured in motion and at rest," says Rikkola. "Chain of custody needs to be tracked, and access controls to data must be in place."

Komatsu will have a remote teleoperations solution on a customer site in Latin America at the end of 2020. "Autonomy is part of repositioning mining as a responsible global partner, balancing the need for natural resource sustainability, the demands for societal growth and empowering informed decision-making that drives down the cost per tonne and improves safety," declares Rikkola.

"We are excited to demonstrate the capabilities of the system in a production environment and to partner with our customer to help them achieve their blasthole drill automation roadmap."


Sandvik's AutoMine Surface Drilling for rotary drills system consists of:

  • A remote operator station where the operator can control a fleet of rigs;
  • The AutoMine onboard package, that provides the required additional components for each rig such as cameras, safety and communications units;
  • An Access Control System (ACS), to provide remote e-stop and a safe approach to autonomous rigs; and
  • A wireless communication system; this can be a Sandvik-provided standard network or the Sandvik system can be integrated into a customer network provided it fulfils the required performance.

The Sandvik AutoMine Surface Drilling system is scalable to different setups. "It can be used as a line-of-sight solution to have a mobile operating station or van at the bench with the drills or it can be used from a mine-site control room - or even from a control room at a city office," says Eerola. "The functionality scales from autonomous one hole drilling and operator-controlled tramming to fully autonomous drilling cycle for unlimited sequence of blastholes."

The most important information a drill rig collects is the data about the holes. "There is a big dataset of hole-related data that is available for the drilling operations management," states Eerola. "Additionally, there is a dataset available about the machine health for maintenance planning purposes, and also an automation system dataset describing how the automation system performs."

Sandvik utilises a phased approach to rolling out autonomous solutions. "Our phased approach begins with implementing onboard technical solutions such as high-precision guidance," says Harris, "then moves towards implementation and training the drill operator on how to utilise the onboard automation to make their jobs easier."

The onboard automation includes automated assist functionality such as assisted drilling, assisted levelling and assisted setup. The next phase involves moving the operator from the drilling site into a remote station that may be located either on the same bench as the controlled drill or from a remote-operating office building. Then, the last phase is the push to full automation.

"Each phase involves changes to operational processes and training," explains Harris. "For example, the method of performing preoperational system checks may change to be performed via cameras or will require someone from the autonomous maintenance team to audit at the beginning of each shift.

"In addition, our phased approach is geared towards assessing the current autonomous readiness of a mining operation and providing the operation with autonomous functionality to address their current needs, ultimately progressing the customer to their desired level of automation."

Sandvik's iSeries family of solutions can provide users with a multitude of data to help them to be more productive and increase operational efficiency. Harris says: "We feel that the data belongs to our customers."

Sandvik solutions may allow data to be obtained under the following parameters:

  • Measurement-while-drilling data such as bit depth, feed pressure, rotation pressure and rotation speed, along with various other pressures and speed;
  • Machine health parameter data such as engine load, fuel tank level, engine coolant level, engine oil level etc;
  • Machine status data, including engine state and drill functional state; and
  • Machine counters such as total fuel used and time spent drilling or tramming.

Harris adds: "Our reporting solutions follow the general data protection regulations (GDPR) to ensure that we are compliant and address all of our customers' data and security needs."

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