A joint-development project by Australian and Swedish engineers is changing the working environment for exploration contractors at the same time as it offers faster, more efficient operations for the mining industry.
For decades, automation technology has mostly been focused on production drilling, for obvious reasons. Exploration, on the other hand, has lagged behind. In fact, with automation now at an advanced stage in virtually all other areas of the mining process, exploration is now viewed by many to be the last frontier.
However, that will soon be a thing of the past largely due to a unique collaboration between two of the world’s leading exploration specialists – Ausdrill of Australia and Epiroc of Sweden – who together have enabled exploration to transition into the automation age.
It was in 2018 when Ausdrill, part of Perenti Group and Australia’s leading drilling services provider, experienced strong demand from the exploration industry to “go auto”. Some mining clients, the company noted, were aiming for a technology shift within a specific time period.
Eric Gobbert, the company’s Senior Manager Business Development and Improvement, says:
"As a leader in the drilling industry in Australia we are always looking at how we can use innovation to improve the safety of our people and the efficiency of our operations."
Established more than 35 years ago in Kalgoorlie, in the heart of the Western Australia mining region, Ausdrill has about 40 exploration rigs, both RC and diamond/core units, and decided it needed to partner with a leading manufacturer to meet the growing demand.
Having previously worked closely with Epiroc in the development of its drill and blast rigs, Ausdrill proposed that the two companies join forces to collaborate on solving the automation challenge, specifically for RC (Reverse Circulation) technology.
Today, the success of that collaboration is manifested in the latest exploration rig from Epiroc – the Explorac RC30 Smart – an RC drill rig that is the first of its kind.
Launched in October 2023, it features fully automated rod-handling, high-speed operation, process monitoring, remote control and a range of other improvements that make the job faster, safer and more efficient than ever.
The project set out to solve very specific issues, recalls Gobbert.
"We wanted to keep the operator outside of the drop zones around the rigs. We wanted advanced interlocks and safety monitoring, continuous monitoring of the process as well as improvements to reliability and maintenance, and we wanted to get it done as fast as we could".
In contrast, exploration rigs drill to much greater depths than production rigs, requiring access to multiple drill rods from outside the mast area which increases the risk to the operator. This means that for deeper holes using rods supplied from a truck, the rod handling system needed to be ‘taught’ to start from a new position for every hole.
The Explorac RC30 Smart therefore represents a major step-change for exploration in surface applications, significantly raising exploration technology to the next level, explains David Benton, Epiroc’s Global Product Manager for Exploration.
"The rig seamlessly combines automated sequences and embedded interlocks to eliminate high risk and repetitive tasks while offering the largest pullback capacity of any Epiroc exploration rig to date."
Gobbert highlights Ausdrill’s initiative to engage in a long-term project to introduce hands-free technology and automated drilling processes.
We call this ‘Hands Off Steel’ which also became our catchphrase for bringing automation into the reverse circulation drilling industry here in Australia. In terms of automating the rod handling function, it was obviously a fitting motto.”
Speeding up the automated sequences was a key consideration in the development phase of the Explorac RC30 Smart, he notes.
"We had to ensure that the rod handler system would be faster than the operators, otherwise they would simply continue doing the job manually. There are a million benefits to be achieved with automation, and we still don’t know where it ends.
“We were very keen to engage in this design and development as it meets all our Perenti principles of ‘Enable Tomorrow and ‘Smarter Together’. Our goal is to minimize risks in the workplace and remove our teams from unnecessary hazards.”
The Explorac RC30 Smart not only improves operating performance and safety, but it has been designed in a manner that supports future scaling of rig features and functionality. As a result, Ausdrill and other contractors can easily upgrade the equipment when new automation features become available.
This ensures that contractors can keep pace with industry changes and get the highest possible return on their investment throughout the life of the drill rig.
Besides a technology breakthrough, the new Explorac RC30 Smart represents a meeting of minds that has been praised by both partners.
Ausdrill’s Eric Gobbert says, “We were very impressed with Epiroc’s commitment to this project and how they built an understanding of our requirements. We felt we really had the scope to influence the design of this new rig with the specifications we provided.
“There were a lot of issues in the first year or two of the collaboration, such as parts wearing more quickly or the rig not staying in auto mode, but all of these challenges were overcome.”
For Epiroc’s part, David Benton says the project exemplifies the company’s core values of innovation, commitment, and collaboration.
A great deal of effort has been put in on both sides, particularly when you take into consideration the delays caused by the Covid pandemic,” he says. “But our communications have been open and Ausdrill has been very understanding throughout.”
The prototype has now been delivered to Ausdrill. So what has the new rig meant for Ausdrill’s operations?
“We basically had to relearn how to drill with this rig as it was so different to what the operators were used to,” says Gobbert. “They had to learn how to drill in auto mode, and that took time. Our maintenance team also had to get their heads around how the rig works, and Epiroc has been helpful with this too.
“There’s no doubt that the development of the Explorac RC30 Smart has enabled us to advance the technology roadmap according to our clients’ requirements, so hopefully it will enable us to tender for projects with Tier 1 clients that some of our competitors can’t deliver on because they do not have the technological capabilities.”
Although the project has put exploration drilling firmly on the road to automation, both partners agree that more work needs to be done. As Benton puts it, “With a strong foundation for further development now in place, we are focused on innovating towards the complete automation of the RC drilling process from start to finish.”