Features, Mining Services

Epiroc at forefront of next-generation technology

The original equipment manufacturer’s breakthrough autonomous blasthole drill is a big stride forward in safety and productivity.

From a Perth office, a mine worker controls up to six Epiroc Pit Viper autonomous drills that prepare blast holes at a site in the Pilbara in northern Western Australia.

Used by some of the world’s largest mining companies, the remote-controlled Epiroc Pit Viper can operate continuously. Epiroc is the only manufacturer in the world to have a fully autonomous blast hole drill.  

The autonomous Pit Viper is safer and more productive than traditional blasthole drills with up to 41 per cent higher productivity than traditional drills. 

“Automation and interoperability are the future of mining,” says Rohan Anderson, Epiroc Australia’s regional application centre manager. 

“Mining companies will increasingly use autonomous machines that talk to each other through a common technology platform, and require less human intervention.”

Six years in the making, this next-generation drill technology was co-designed at Epiroc’s Swedish, United States and Australian operations. Anderson led a local team of 20 who worked with Epiroc’s global innovation experts and Australian mining companies.

“Our team took software created in Sweden and Texas, and developed and commercialised it in Australia,” Anderson says. 

“We worked with clients to retrofit their blasthole drills, listened to their needs, and relayed the data to our innovation team. Through a process of iteration, we developed a breakthrough product.”

Outcomes from the autonomous Pit Viper have surpassed expectation, says Anderson. 

“We’re seeing higher more consistent penetration rates in hole drilling, less drill downtime, lower fuel burn and lower maintenance costs because automation operates equipment to specification,” he says.

Labour savings is another benefit. “One employee can remotely simultaneously monitor multiple Epiroc Pit Viper autonomous drills,” says Anderson. “And they can do so from a capital-city office rather than a remote mine site.”

Anderson’s team has successfully adapted the Pit Viper autonomous drill for Australia’s coal industry with rods autonomously changed for deeper blastholes. 

“The coal sector is a focus for Epiroc. We believe Australian coal companies can generate significant productivity gains through our drilling technology,” he says.

Epiroc has also automated its Scooptram ST18 loader for underground mines. In collaboration with clients, Epiroc tested the technology on its 18 metric tonne front-end loaders. A gold mine is already using the technology to tram ore to a crusher.

“Autonomous technology is important in underground mines due to the risks of working below surface,” says Anderson. “We intend to apply the technology to our other loaders and mine trucks which operate on the same platform as ST18 loaders.”

Anderson says Epiroc’s automation technology has two inter-related advantages. The first is the ability to be retrofitted. “Clients can apply Epiroc technology to their existing Pit Viper drills and Scooptram ST18 loaders rather than buy new equipment.”

The second advantage is interoperability. Simply, third-party machines that use Epiroc’s automation technology can talk to each other through Epiroc’s autonomous system – and integrate into a mine’s production system. 

Epiroc’s system is an intuitive interface that allows an operator to run multiple machines, and provides data-rich insights on production performance.

Epiroc is investing in mining technology. Atlas Copco (Epiroc’s former parent company) in 2017 acquired Mobilaris, another Swedish company that provides advanced software that optimises underground-mining operations. 

In 2017, Altas Copco split Epiroc into a separate company and listed it on the Nasdaq Stockholm stock exchange. 

In 2020, Epiroc acquired MineRP to enhance its capabilities in mining data and digitisation. 

“Automation on its own is not enough,” Anderson says. “Mining companies need technology that allows mining equipment to capture data and communicate.”

Anderson says Australia is an exceptional market to develop mining technology. 

“We have a world-class mining industry that understands the value of long-term collaboration and investment in innovation,” he says. 

“We also have mining companies at the forefront of applying latest global innovations to their operations.”

Epiroc provides the “best of both worlds” for Australian miners, says Anderson. 

“Like many Swedish companies, Epiroc has a long history of innovation (Atlas Copco was founded in 1873). Epiroc Australia, which has operated here since 1950, understands local conditions. Our strength is harnessing that global capability to help Australian miners,” he concludes. 

To learn more about Epiroc, visit https://www.epiroc.com/en-au

This story also appears in the August issue of Australian Resources & Investment.

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