What are mining robots & what can they do? (2024)

March 26, 2024
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What is a mining robot?

Mining robots are autonomous or semi-autonomous machines designed to improve productivity and safety in mining operations. 

These robots can traverse the most dangerous environments, handle extremely heavy loads with precision, and work pretty much forever. 

Some mining robots are stationary automated equipment like rock breakers, while others are mobile autonomous vehicles used for hauling, drilling, and tunneling.

Here’s what mining robots can do:

  • Automated drill rigs and bolting machines can work in dangerous, confined spaces to drill blast holes and install rock bolts for ground support. These robots improve productivity and eliminate the enormous risks associated with manual drilling.
  • Fully autonomous Load Haul Dump vehicles, or LHDs, load, transport, and dump rocks and ore in underground mines. These driverless trucks maximize productivity by driving 24/7. They also eliminate or extremely lower the risks of operating heavy equipment in hazardous, confined spaces.
  • Robotic exploration vehicles map new mineral deposits and explore existing mines. Equipped with 3D laser scanners, GPS, and mapping software, these robots can autonomously navigate underground tunnels and open pits to create highly accurate 3D maps.

    Also, the data collected by exploration robots helps mining companies understand their resource base and plan future operations better.

How can mining robots help? 

Mining robots, also known as autonomous mining equipment, can take over the lion’s share of the repetitive, dangerous, and back-breaking work that human workers do every day. 

Let’s take a look at some of the tasks where these robots help: 

  • Automated drilling: Robots are being used for drilling operations, allowing for precise and efficient drilling without putting human workers at risk.
  • Material handling: Robotic systems are streamlining the transportation of materials within mines, from extraction points to processing areas.
  • Exploration and mapping: Robots equipped with sensors can explore uncharted areas of mines, providing valuable data for mapping and planning purposes.
  • Safety inspections: Robots can enter dangerous areas to perform safety checks, identifying potential hazards like gas leaks or structural weaknesses.
  • Ore sampling: Automated robots can collect ore samples for analysis, ensuring consistent and accurate data collection.

Why are mining companies deploying robots?

Mining companies are turning to robotics and automation to improve productivity and efficiency while reducing costs. Here’s why:

  • Better put a robot on it. Mining robots can handle dangerous tasks like drilling, blasting, hauling, and tunneling — eliminating the risks of injury or even death for miners. 

    How? These robots have sensors and software that allow them to navigate difficult terrain and avoid crashing into stuff. Some models can even operate in areas with poor visibility due to dust or gas — out of the question for us poor humans. 
  • Over, and over, and over. Robots rock at repetitive, mundane tasks that often lead to repetitive strain injuries for humans. Think about jobs like rock bolting, drilling, and transporting heavy loads, which can put serious strain on the body. 

    Mining robots can take over these jobs, allowing human miners to focus on more complex, cognitive work — and keep their bodies healthy. 
  • Productivity winners. Mining robots work on and on with near-zero breaks, increasing productivity and reducing downtime. They move at a consistent pace and don't get distracted or fatigued. Some mining companies have reported 20-30% increases in productivity by switching to autonomous equipment.
  • Thinking green. Mining robots can also help companies meet sustainability goals by massively cutting down waste and pollution. For instance, autonomous electric vehicles produce zero direct emissions, unlike diesel-powered mining equipment.

    Also, more precise robotic control and navigation mean there’s less material wastage and disturbances during excavation and hauling. Robots even have the potential to help with land reclamation when mining operations are complete.
  • Helping out with labor shortages. Mining is facing a worsening shortage of skilled labor as older workers retire. Automation makes up for the lack of human workers — and the expertise they provide. 

How can robots improve safety in mining?

Mining is inherently dangerous, and there are several ways in which mining robots can help make things far safer:  

  • Reducing human exposure to risky environments. By taking over hazardous jobs like drilling, blasting, and transporting heavy materials, robots minimize the risks of injury or death for human workers. Robots can also work in hazardous areas like underground tunnels or unstable rock faces where the environment may not be suitable or accessible for people.
  • Thorough risk monitoring. Robots equipped with sensors can scan for hazardous gasses, unstable rock structures, and other potential dangers that not even attentive humans can notice. They can alert workers to evacuate an area before there’s a huge disaster. Robotic drones can also inspect equipment, tunnels, and open pits while scanning for any issues.
  • No fatigue, no problems. Operating heavy machinery for long hours in harsh conditions can lead to tiredness, impaired judgment, and slower reaction times in human workers. 

    But robots don’t tire, and remain unaffected by environmental stresses, so they can take over hard jobs without any drop in performance or alertness. The result is fewer accidents and mistakes caused by human error or exhaustion.
  • Automating emergency responses. Some mining companies are developing autonomous emergency response systems using robots; these systems can detect incidents like fires, gas leaks, or cave-ins and deploy robotic first responders to assess the situation, evacuate workers from danger, and even douse fires or stabilize dangerous areas before human emergency crews arrive on site. 

    Though they’re still in the early testing stages, these robotic first responders could save many human lives.
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Where are mining robots used today?

Many open-pit mines around the world, and some underground mines, are benefiting from mining robots:

Open-pit or open-cast mines are huge holes dug into the ground to extract minerals and metals like copper, gold, iron ore, and coal. These massive mines can span several miles across and descend hundreds of feet deep.

Robots are pretty much tailor-made for navigating and operating in these vast, risky areas. Autonomous haul trucks transport ore and overburden, while autonomous drills bore into rock faces to place explosives. 

After blasting, autonomous bulldozers clear and flatten the area.

  • Deep underground mines. Some minerals and metals are hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface. Underground hard rock mines are a network of tunnels carved out of solid rock to extract valuable ores. These cramped, treacherous environments can pose many dangers to human workers like cave-ins, explosions, and hazardous gasses.
  • Robots can help improve safety in underground mines. Autonomous load-haul-dump vehicles (LHDs) can transport ore along narrow tunnels; robotic rock bolters install rock support to prevent tunnel walls from collapsing; autonomous longwall shearers cut into coal seams, while robotic roof bolters reinforce the roof above. 
  • Platinum group metals (PGMs) like platinum, palladium, and rhodium are rare, precious resources used in catalysts, electronics, and jewelry. The majority of the world’s PGMs come from South Africa’s Bushveld Igneous Complex. 

    These underground mines contain narrow mineral reefs that require careful, precise extraction. Robotic rock-cutting machines, called mechanized miners, are used to selectively cut into reefs and extract ore with minimal waste. 

Here are also some countries where skilled mining robots are already in operation: 

  • Australia: Leading the pack in robotic mining technologies, Australia has several mines using autonomous trucks and drill rigs.
  • Canada: Canadian mines use remote-controlled drilling and ore-handling robots, particularly in the harsh environments of the northern territories.
  • South Africa: Deep underground mines in South Africa use robots for safety inspections and material handling, addressing the challenges of deep-level mining.
  • Chile: In Chile's vast copper mines, you can see robots performing drilling, inspection, and even in the smelting processes.
  • Sweden: Sweden's mining sector is pioneering in deploying electric autonomous loaders and trucks — significantly cutting down emissions and upping efficiency.

Summing up

You've learned a lot about the emerging role of robots in the mining industry. 

While there are still challenges around implementing new technologies, the benefits are clear, and the main point stands: Mining companies that embrace robotics will see major gains in both productivity and efficiency. 

Next steps 

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