See how mining robots are impacting the productivity and safety of mining sites.
From lung disease to cave-ins, mining is a notoriously unsafe industry. Is there any way to make it safer?
Cue the robot miner.
Robominer® is a mining robot developed to help dig in areas that are too dangerous for humans to explore. They also have the ability to access locations previously unreachable by human workers. However, there is still an element of uncertainty regarding Robominer®’s capabilities and application. Despite challenges and concerns, the emergence of mining robots promises great things for the future. Is Robominer® the answer to unsafe mining sites?
A Brief History
The long-awaited machinery could put an end to one of the darkest aspects of the mining industry, which has plagued the workforce for centuries: mining-related injuries and fatalities. Though we’ve come a long way since the days when a canary was the only safety equipment available for miners, the industry still remains treacherous.
Explosions, mineshaft collapses, and heavy machinery all pose considerable risks to workers in mines, so much so that an estimated 12,000 workers every year die as a result.
Therefore, mining robots—and Robominer®, specifically—could be one of the greatest developments in heavy industry since automation.
The International Partnership
SRI International, R&D champions of Silicon Valley, partnered with Enaex, market leaders in ammonium nitrate explosives in Chile and internationally, and produced Robominer®. The teleoperated machine is currently in the initial phase of its development. Phase two will kick off in 2018, where the two companies hope to push Robominer®’s capacity of uses and applications even further.
“Projects such as Robominer® with SRI—as well as our Mine iTruck tele-operated mobile explosives manufacturing truck—will enhance mining operations and resources by taking care of our greatest asset, which is people […],” Juan Andrés Errázuriz, CEO of the Enaex Group, said. “Through the development of this type of project, Enaex wants to contribute in the conversion of Chile from a mineral exporting country to an exporter of innovative technology for the mining industry.”
Robert Pearlstein, Vice President of Corporate Business and International Development at SRI International, added, “SRI is honored to collaborate with Enaex on important innovations in robotics that will help mine workers be safer, healthier and more productive.”
The mining robot sounds like a concept with great potential to transform the mining industry. But there’s a question on everybody’s minds: how exactly does the Robominer® work?
The Robominer® is a tele-operated humanoid that responds to remote commands. Robominer® is made up of a torso, head, and arms, with various sensors providing stereo vision, force feedback, localization, and scene rendering. Placed on a mobilized platform, the robot moves along at human-level velocity, aided by four rugged wheels allowing all-terrain travel. It is also capable of operating with payloads up to 10 kilograms.
Armed with the capacity to capture real-time 3D representation of mining environments, Robominer® can check gas levels and monitor rises or falls in temperature, as well as measure the topography of the facility site. In 2018, its inventors hope to advance the machinery to the point of being able to manipulate various items and handle raw material objects.
A huge range of mining tasks demand a level of dexterity impossible to accomplish by human workers. In addition, Robominer® offers the resilience and physical robustness to explore unstructured environments and terrain which the human form is simply not capable of. Robominer® and other similar automated vehicles can carry out responsibilities that are impossible for human workers, and at unprecedented levels of productivity.
The mining world is undeniably difficult, and in many ways unhealthy for workers, even with modern advancements in health and safety equipment. However, mining robots are based on remote control, and are designed to “learn” on the job, meaning they’ll need less input from their human handlers over time.
Although experts predict advanced automation will make more than 600,000 jobs redundant, machinery such as Robominer® is solving the labor shortage that has plagued the industry for years. Furthermore, there is a demand for the Robominer® because of the notorious performance gap in the heavy industries. According to McKinsey Research, the use of digitized equipment will increase productivity by 50 percent, leading to an estimated $1.6 trillion boost in value.
Robominer® Trials Begin
Robominer®’s initial trials will take place in open pit mines, but will soon graduate to underground sites. Given the machine’s versatile capabilities and resilience against environmental risks, extreme temperatures and harsh conditions, it’s best suited to underground use once the above-ground trials prove successful.
Mining Robots and Safety Tech
Many mining equipment manufacturers have developed safety-related technology, a good example of this is CAT® Connect. It serves as a viable monetary upgrade for operations, because it monitors safety, sustainability, and productivity metrics. Increasingly, CAT® Connect and similar products serve as a step-up that mining sites may first utilize before adopting something like Robominer®.
Automation of all kinds is increasingly prevalent in the mining and construction world. We are witnessing more companies introduce robots in some form or another to carry out tasks that were previously performed by humans. This technology has recently been introduced to the wearables market in the form of a robotic exoskeleton.
According to ABI Research, the market—which was a mere $1.6 million in 2014—could reach $1.8 billion in under a decade. Up until now, the field of medicine has benefited most from the applications of robotic exoskeletons. However, given the enhanced lifting strength and reduced physical strain this engineering can arm the human body with, it seems likely this technology will begin to feature in mining, too.
In terms of direct competition, the Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian GT robot is a similar tele-operated unit, also designed to perform under dangerous conditions. Originally invented for use in the nuclear industry, the GT could eventually see widespread use in construction and mining.
Development of Mining Robots
There are so many outstanding questions regarding the Robominer®, as it is the pinnacle of the emergence of mining robots thus far. While SRI and Enaex are still working on its development, this technology promises to access the most dangerous and previously inaccessible areas of underground and pit mines.
This development could not only eradicate almost 12,000 miner deaths annually, but it could also exploit potentially valuable raw materials which have remained so far unharvested by human limits. Robominer® is here, and paving the way for the age of mining robots that are revolutionizing the industry as we know it.
Megan writes about technology and sustainability in technical industries. Connect with her on Twitter @Megan_wild.