Robots Could Radically Transform Mine Safety, Experts Say
Robotics and remote technology could transform one of the world’s most labor-intensive and potentially dangerous industries. The mining sector is notoriously hazardous due to the nature of the sector, however the introduction of robots, drones, driverless trucks and pilotless trains could transform mine safety. A technology boom could also allow for the development of mines in regions once thought too precarious or remote to exploit.
Rio Tinto is a leader in this field, funding one of the world’s largest non-military robotics programs, which will soon use unmanned trains to deliver cargo to the coast and set drones aloft at its remote mines. John McGagh, head of innovation at Rio Tinto is confident that come October 2014, drones will be operational at mine sites, monitoring stockpiles, mapping exploration targets and tracking equipment.
Watch the video below to understand what Rio Tinto is doing to enhance safety using robotics and technology:
Mining without miners
Rio Tinto is not the only mining powerhouse about to utelise drones and remote technology on site. BHP Billiton and Anglo American are also ramping up efforts to automate, believing that new equipment will cut costs and improve returns, while allowing them to exploit deposits so far considered too complex or too dangerous for humans. It’s also thought that technological advances could pave the way for a new generation of mines, located in extremely remote locations. Rather than having a human presence on the ground, operations will be conducted from afar in high-tech control rooms.
The insertion of remote controlled technology brings direct health and safety benefits by allowing miners to perform the same task without having to be within close proximity of potentially hazardous environments.
“Reducing the numbers of people involved on the field mechanically reduces the probability of having accidents, especially considering that the mining industry will extract commodities from deeper and more complex ores in the future,” says Philippe Dozolme, a mining and explosives specialist, writing for International Mining magazine. “By providing a safer working environment, the mining industry might be able to tackle the current labor shortage and attract high potential profiles.”
Reducing the risk of human error
Furthermore, by replacing a workforce on the ground with more predictable and precise remote controlled automated equipment, the likelihood of human error is reduced dramatically. On top of that, sensors and diagnostic tools that are incorporated in such equipment allow problems to be picked-up earlier, reducing maintenance costs and downtime.
Removing the human element from mine sites is undoubtedly good for reducing risk, however the benefits extend far beyond health and safety. While there are no set-in-stone estimates regarding the cost saving benefits of remote technology, there are hints based on current applications of smart tech. For example, Rio Tinto’s use of sensors to fine tune copper processing has seen free cash flow increase by $80 million over the course of a year, according to CEO Sam Walsh. Since taking the helm of the company in January 2013, Walsh has reduced costs company-wide by $2.3 billion.
If managed correctly, automation and robotics can dramatically reduce risk in the mining sector, ultimately leading to a safer and more efficient mine site.
Rio Tinto and Alcoa begin construction with ELYSIS tech
Eliminating all direct greenhouse gases from aluminium smelting has taken a major step forward with the start of construction on the first commercial-scale prototype cells of ELYSIS’ inert anode technology, at Rio Tinto’s Alma smelter in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec.
ELYSIS has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of aluminium production
ELYSIS is a joint venture company led by Rio Tinto and Alcoa that is developing a new breakthrough technology, known as inert anode, that eliminates all direct greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the traditional smelting process and instead produces oxygen.
The technology has the potential to transform the aluminium industry, with a significant reduction in its carbon footprint.
The inert anode prototype cells will operate on a commercial scale typical for large modern aluminium smelters, using an electrical current of 450 kiloamperes (kA).
The Honourable Francois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry joined representatives from ELYSIS, Rio Tinto and Alcoa to mark the start of construction and announce a further CAD $20mn financial contribution from the Government of Canada to support the project.
The federal government's financial support will enable the creation of a unique commercial size inert anode technology showroom for future customers and will help develop the supply chain by involving local and regional equipment manufacturers and suppliers in the project.
ELYSIS is working to complete the technology demonstration by 2024 followed by the commercialization activities.
ELYSIS technology at a glance:
- The ELYSIS technology addresses the global trend towards producing low carbon footprint products, from mobile phones to cars, planes and building materials.
- The new process will reduce operating costs ofaluminiumsmelters while increasing production capacity. It could be used in both new and existing aluminium smelters.
- In Canada alone, the ELYSIS technology has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 7 million tons, the equivalent of removing 1.8 million cars from the roads.
- ELYSIS will also sell next-generation anode and cathode materials, which will last more than 30 times longer than traditional components.
Alcoa and Rio Tinto will continue to support the ELYSIS development program alongside the Governments of Canada and Quebec.
ELYSIS is working closely with Alcoa's Technical Center, where the zero-carbon smelting technology was invented, and the Rio Tinto technology design team in France.
Alcoa's Technical Center supports ELYSIS in the manufacture of proprietary materials for the new anodes and cathodes that are essential to the ELYSIS process. The Rio Tinto technology team in France is creating commercial scale designs for the ELYSIS technology.
Vincent Christ, CEO, ELYSIS commented: “This is a great day for ELYSIS. It means that we are becoming the first technology company in the world to build commercial-size inert anode cells. While we refine the technology in our R&D Centre, we start the construction of our prototype cells. This shows our confidence in our process and in the know-how of our team. The combination of ELYSIS' zero CO2 technology and Quebec's renewable energy will be great competitive advantage for the future. I would like to thank the government for its support and all the partners for their commitment.”
Samir Cairae, Rio Tinto Aluminium managing director Atlantic Operations and ELYSIS board member added: “Today marks a real step towards the future of the aluminium industry, by progressing this breakthrough technology to cut carbon emissions. Rio Tinto is committed to supporting its ongoing development here in Quebec where we already use clean hydropower to deliver some of the world’s lowest carbon aluminium. Combining this technology with renewable hydropower holds the promise of zero carbon aluminium smelting.”