A new age of robotics and automation

The convention centre in Houston, Texas, has been divided into four arenas. Each arena is set up like a space station on Mars, with habitats and rocket ships with open cargo bays. On opposite sides of the arenas are two alliances, each consisting of three robots constructed by robotics clubs comprised of secondary school students.

Welcome to the 2019 FIRST Robotics World Championship! FIRST is a non-profit advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics for young people.

At the “Go” command, each robot has 15 seconds to navigate autonomously; their vision is obscured by black curtains simulating a Martian sandstorm. After the storm abates the robots are guided by wireless remote control. They have to batten hatches and drop payload into the secured cargo bays. Meanwhile, a robot from the other alliance runs defence to keep opposing robots from accomplishing their goal.

Near the end each robot attempts to return to its habitat and, if properly engineered and constructed, climb onto raised tables. Three days of competition decide the winner.

If you don’t think this is exciting, you are sorely mistaken – especially if your grandkids are on the rookie team, the Anthem Bolts, their mother (our daughter) is the coach, and the Bolts finished 13th in a field of more than 300 teams from 23 countries!

So how does all of this relate to quarrying? Well, Caterpillar, for one, was a strategic sponsor of the world championship.

{{image2-a:r-w:300}}And why would it sponsor such an event? Because autonomous vehicles and robotics are certainly in the future of mining.

Hundreds of millions of tonnes of mined material has already been moved by autonomous haul trucks using high precision GPS, radar and laser sensors to navigate haul roads while avoiding people, vehicles and other obstacles. Because there are no shift changes, breaks or lunches, the autonomous trucks have perhaps a 20 per cent greater production record than manned vehicles – and impeccable safety records.

A number of companies manufacture automated drill rigs that can drill blasthole patterns and monitor ground conditions more quickly and accurately than human-operated equipment. Robotic mechanical shovels equipped with automation technology can also operate in unstable or unsafe areas while improving efficiency and productivity.

Mines around the world are using drones to help gather information about their sites. For example, some mining companies use drones to measure stockpiles, confirm clearance before blasts, monitor traffic, road conditions and hazards, and to provide real-time aerial footage.

Some companies are also looking to take drones underground to inspect dusty, restricted cavities and map the environment using 3D laser scanner technology.

Automation is not restricted to the confines of the mine. In the outback near the Pilbara, a fully autonomous heavy-haul railway is up and running, with locomotives fitted with complex on-board computer systems and cameras.

These systems are linked to 4G networks that send automatic reports on the trains’ position, speed and direction of travel to a control centre more than 1500km away.

As an added safety measure, crossings along the route have cameras to provide real-time feedback.

We are living in an incredible age of invention and innovation. Autonomous operation and robotics have great potential to improve the efficiency and safety of the aggregates industry.

Who knows, maybe some time in the future a graduate from the Anthem Bolts will design a robot to help automate your quarrying operation on Mars!

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