In the Andes northeast of Santiago de Chile, at an altitude beginning at 3100 meters and just a stone’s throw away from the border with Argentina, lies the open-pit mining operation Minera Los Pelambres (MLP). Being run by Chilean mining group AMSA, the site has huge deposits of copper and molybdenum. Successful as the operations are, the AMSA Group aims to improve even more.
“The owners and General Manager, Mauricio Larraín, were quick to realize that newer technology brings value. The main drivers are to increase safety and productivity, and they’ve been quite inspired by automation projects in Australia. Automation simply seemed like the best tool to achieve the desired results,” says Rodrigo Izzo, Business Line Manager in the Surface Division of Epiroc Chile, adding: “I have a hunch that they also liked the idea of pioneering mining automation technology in Chile.”
Epiroc has had an equipment maintenance contract with MLP for over a decade and was the natural partner for a collaborative automation effort.
The choice was made to test the concept by converting two Pit Viper 351 diesel drills to fully autonomous operations. Epiroc planned, developed and prepared the necessary technical hardware and software upgrades following a four-step blueprint guide to automation conversion.
“The first meetings with management led by the Mine area and the D&B team led by Fabián Ortega, Jimmy Madrid abnd Edgardo Pabst, took place by the end of 2018. MLP the order by mid-2019, and we proceeded by engaging all stakeholders, from management down to the tech and IT personnel. It was important that everyone in the company should be involved in the project,” says Rodrigo Izzo.
The mine wireless network was upgraded, and hardware for control centers installed. The two Pit Viper rigs themselves were taken out of production to receive upgrades, one in October 2019 and the other in January 2020.
“Each rig took four weeks to refit, at the end of which they were commissioned and put into production. Pedro Debia and Heath Young, Senior Engineers from Epiroc Chile and USA respectively, made sure everything was working properly before launching the first autonomous rig in December 2019 when the first autonomous drillholes were successfully done.” says Rodrigo Izzo.
The system includes fleet management software called Surface Manager, a real-time monitoring system for operational data. The Rig Control System (RCS) integrates Auto Level and Auto Drilling with a high precision GPS. The tasks involved requires process control rather than hands-on labor, and the operators were re-trained to reflect that.
Even before we collected and presented the numbers, the company could see immediate results. MLP had set the goal to raise the autonomous utilization to 55 percent by March – we reached it in February,” says Rodrigo Izzo.
The safety is vastly improved through remote operation outside the mine. The operators now work in an office environment with improved ergonomics, and elimination of risk factors like dust, silica, vibration, and noise. Also, the figures for productivity and precision have risen: operational drilling speed is up 10 percent, well depth accuracy has increased to over 96% percent, and utilization has also increased thanks to lower times of shift change, blasting evacuation, and transfers of the operators in between the day. Additionally, an added bonus is lower wear and tear on the drilling steels, resulting in lower maintenance costs and longer service life.
The next step in the project is to convert three electric Pit Viper rigs to single row, semi-autonomous operations, with the initial plan to be completed by 2021.