The Future of Mining: The Rise of Autonomous Robots
The mining industry has undergone a significant transformation in a few short decades, from manual labor to powerful new tools and robots equipped with ever improving automated capabilities. With the use of robots in the mining industry increasing, many of the drills and loaders are now equipped with limited-autonomy capabilities that allow mine engineers to control them remotely or send them on repeatable missions.
Additionally, precise sensors such as LiDAR or other laser scanners are being used to map underground cavities that can be used as maps for autonomous loaders to move ores throughout the mines. In this blog post, we will discuss the increasing use of autonomous robots in the mining industry and why they are indispensable components in mining operations.
I’m sure many mine operators are familiar with semi-autonomous systems like AutoMine from Sandvik. This enables operators to control a single loader or fleet of loaders and haulers from the surface of a mine, or anywhere in the world really! This is a remarkably impressive technology, but it requires the robots underground to have a starting map of the areas they’re going to be driving through.
But huge strides are being made to automate some of the more grueling tasks underground, like drilling. Adding to its lineup, Sandvik also unveiled an automated driller that operates through their AutoMine suite. Now operators can get even more done underground while piloting from the surface. These are all important steps to continue driving towards a future where only autonomous robots are required to mine underground.
Even though the use of more automated systems underground is making work safer and more efficient, it’s not without its pitfalls. Automated workflows can run into snags and fail, which is why it is critical to use truly autonomous robots that can respond to changing environmental conditions to complete their mapping missions.
One of the critical reasons why autonomous robots are important in the mining industry is their capacity to map underground cavities. LiDAR sensors are used to create maps for autonomous loaders to move ores throughout the mines and to the surface. The maps are also crucial for survey teams to monitor the collection of ores and detect any movements underground that could pose a danger to miners. With the use of LiDAR sensors, autonomous robots can create maps of underground spaces that are too difficult or dangerous for humans to perform.
One of the biggest uses of autonomous robots underground currently is in cavity monitoring systems to survey and inspect the most active areas of the mine, which can often be the most dangerous. Up until a few years ago, survey teams would normally be equipped with a laser scanner attached to the end of a long metal boom that would be extended into the interior of a recently blasted cavity. This put miners very close to the brow or burm, the area closest to the entrance of a working stope. Yet even with this close proximity, the laser scanner could often miss unseen gaps in the stope, or shadows, or even get false positives in their data due to gas pockets limiting the value of their volumetric calculations.
Currently, some survey teams are equipped with autonomous drones capable of flying in GPS-denied environments underground. They can launch missions far away from the brow and send the drone in to inspect an entire cavity. These robots, like the ExynAero, are equipped with a sophisticated LiDAR-based Simultaneous Localization And Mapping (SLAM) algorithm which enables them to explore unknown environments while understanding its place inside of it. This means the robot can map a whole cavity in minutes without a pilot in the loop and with the survey team at a safe standoff distance.
The benefit of having a variety of automated and autonomous systems being used underground is that survey teams are no longer limited to where they can explore and map. They can use a handheld LiDAR-based SLAM system, like the ExynPak mounted to a vehicle or backpack, to quickly and easily collect maps to be used by automated loaders to safely navigate ore through standard drifts. While at the same time a different team could be sending an autonomous aerial drone into a cavity for efficient and precise volumetric measurements.
More recently, this type of autonomy is being extended onto ground-based platforms like Spot from Boston Dynamics. Powered by this upgraded autonomy, Spot can explore beyond Autowalk to survey unknown environments for further mapping or even search & rescue applications. With these autonomous robots, the mining industry can accurately complete mapping missions and perform more efficient operations.
Autonomous drones have also become essential components in the mining industry. They enable mining companies to collect precise data, monitor ongoing operations, and detect safety hazards without putting survey teams into harm’s way. However, as more operators in the industry adopt robotic technologies underground, it’s important to prioritize fully autonomous systems that are capable of exploring unstructured environments and making decisions on their own.
Automated systems will perform great when they have pre-installed maps or reliable wireless infrastructure. But one new variable or change could bring the whole operation to a halt. A truly autonomous system will be able to detect and avoid obstacles and make decisions on the fly, reducing downtime and enabling survey teams to focus on high-level objectives.
With the rise of robotic technology in the mining industry, the mining process has been transformed from a manual slog in the dark to an automation level that facilitates optimal utilization of resources and efficient mining operations. True autonomous robots are critical for efficiently completing mapping missions and responding to environmental conditions to carry out mining operations. With LiDAR sensors, the mining industry can more accurately map underground spaces.
Autonomous robots have become indispensable components in the mining industry, enabling mining companies to collect data, monitor mining processes, enhance safety, and improve efficiency. It is time for mining engineers to make the switch to truly autonomous robots and embrace the benefits of more efficient operations and a safer work environment for survey teams and miners.
About the Author
Raffi Jabrayan is the Vice President, Commercial Sales and Business Development for Exyn Technologies. He oversees the expansion of the business internationally in the mining and construction sectors, as well as penetration into other industries. A large part of his role at Exyn is to help miners leverage the data produced by Exyn’s autonomous aerial robots to streamline underground inspections, enhance operational efficiency, and reduce risk. Prior to joining Exyn, Raffi managed digital and technology innovation projects for Dundee Precious Metals and was intimately involved with operationalizing new technologies into Dundee’s workflow. Raffi oversaw the scouting, due diligence, implementation, and post integration assessment of Dundee’s digital and technology projects. Raffi is a seasoned mining professional with practical experience at both the plant and corporate level in various capacities and has completed the Digital Business Strategy Program at MIT Sloan as well as Driving Strategic Impact from Columbia Business School.
About the Company
Exyn Technologies is pioneering multi-platform robotic autonomy for complex, GPS-denied environments. For the first time, industries like mining, logistics, and construction can benefit from a single, integrated solution to capture critical and time-sensitive data in a safer, more affordable, and more efficient way. Exyn is powered by a team of experts in autonomous systems, robotics, and industrial engineering, and has drawn talent from Penn’s world-renowned GRASP Laboratory as well as other storied research institutions. The company is VC-backed and privately held, with headquarters in Philadelphia. For more information, please visit www.exyn.com, you can also contact us on our website.