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Optimized Drilling Through Automation

Eric C. Gerst
Global Business Development Specialist
Flanders

Abstract
In this current era of soft commodity and coal prices the mining industry is turning towards optimizing
all levels of production to reduce operating costs. Part of this trend includes the automation of mining
machines. As the first tier of the mining process blast hole drill automation offers benefits through the
entire value stream from drill bench to material processing.
The primary function of drill automation is to control the drilling process and reduce the variabilities
introduced by manual operation. Variabilities in drill accuracy, operator proficiency, fuel efficiency, and
blast hole quality can affect productivity, fragmentation, mechanical wear on the drill, and premature
failure of the ground engaging tools. All of these affect the overall operating cost. By automating these
parts of the drilling process mining operations can improve overall productivity, reduce drill downtime,
lower operating cost, and improve blasting results.
A secondary function offered by automation is the monitoring and control of the various mechanical
systems on the drill. These monitoring and control systems are typically programmed to limit rotational
torque, pulldown, and engine speed to remain within OEM limits. By displaying and categorizing
system faults it can pinpoint impending system failures before they occur. The strategic use of this data
allows for scheduling preventative maintenance that reduces the amount of drill downtime. Increasing
the utilization of the drill means more bit-in-the-ground time.
A case study from an open pit iron ore mine illustrates the improvements gained from automation where
a fleet of six drills utilizes a One Touch type of drill automation. The data cycle begins with drill
automation utilization between 33%-70% to an average of 85% at the end of the study period. Through
this period the drill productivity for the fleet improved well over 50%.
Safety may be improved by the reduction of unplanned drill maintenance and extending the life of
ground engaging tools. For instance, increased bit life, reducing the incidence of bent drill rods, and
extending the life of the rods by automating rod changing all contribute to less maintenance and
downtime. This has the effect of reducing the exposure time of maintenance personnel to hazards on the
bench. Full automation that removes the operator from the drill altogether also offers a reduction to
hazard exposure and labor costs.
This paper will discuss the functionality of drill automation, identify the benefits, describe measurable
performance indicators, and share case study results that demonstrate the value of drill automation.

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Introduction
Soft commodity and coal prices has the mining industry focusing intensely on optimizing all levels of
production to reduce operating costs. Part of this trend includes the automation of mining machines. As
the first tier of the mining process blast hole drill automation offers benefits through the entire value
stream from drill bench to material processing.
The primary function of drill automation is to control the drilling process and reduce the variabilities
introduced by manual operation. Variabilities in drill accuracy, operator proficiency, fuel efficiency, and
blast-hole quality can affect productivity, fragmentation, and mechanical wear on the drill and ground
engaging tools. By automating these parts of the drilling process mining operations can improve overall
productivity, reduce drill downtime, lower operating cost, and improve blasting results.
Levels of Drill Automation
To understand the application of drill automation it is useful to look at each step in the drilling cycle.
Figure 1 illustrates the process the driller must execute for each hole.

Drilling Cycle

Propel To Ground Hole Retract


Hole Collar Leveling Detect Collaring Drilling Drill String Retract Jacks

Propel To
Next Hole

Drill Process
Figure 1. Breakdown of Drilling Cycle
Drill automation may be broken down into four basic levels:
1) Remote Control Typically limited to line of sight, the drill operator physically controls each
step of the drilling cycle via radio remote communication propel, leveling, air, rotation,
pulldown pressure, rod changing, hole finishing, string retraction, jack retraction, and tram to the
next hole.
2) Semi-Autonomous One or more steps of the Drill Cycle are automated while some require
human intervention. Tramming to the hole collar may be conducted manually or remotely.
Automation is limited to auto-leveling, beginning the drill cycle based on pre-sets, and jack
retraction. Rod changing and drill string retraction may be done manually from on board the
drill or remotely.
3) One Touch Automation Human intervention is required only for tramming from hole to hole
and instigating the steps via HMI for semi-autonomous rod changing. Once over the hole the
operator starts the drilling process by pushing one button. The Drill Control System (DCS)
dynamically controls leveling, hole collaring, rotation, pulldown pressure, and air pressure based
on monitored feedback of the drilling conditions, (See Figure 2). The DCS senses stalled or

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plugged bits and executes procedures to clear the drill string. The DCS also finishes the holes,
cleans cuttings, and retracts the drill string. Rod changes are semi- or fully automated.
4) Fully Autonomous Completely removes the operator from the machine and allows multiple
drills to be operated from a remote location by one operator. The drilling process on each drill is
controlled by the DCS in the same manner as One Touch Automation. Rod changing is semi- or
fully automated. Each machine is programmed to drill the holes in a pre-determined order at the
desired location and to the correct bottom-hole elevation. Waypoints are used to allow
navigation on the pattern. These machines are also equipped with proximity detection capability
to prevent collisions and geo-fencing to keep the machine within its defined pattern space and
away from highwall crests and other drills on the pattern. Full autonomy requires a precise GPS
capability and extensive wireless communication system on site.

Ground Hole Retract


Detect Collaring Drilling Drill String Retract Jacks

Ground Detect (Collar Elevation Plan Bottom Hole Elevation) = Hole Depth
Collaring Phase - Dynamic Hole Collaring Function
Drilling Phase Dynamic Drilling Function Based on Geology
Drilling Phase - Plugged Bit & Collapsed Hole Detection
Drilling Phase - Stalled Rotary Protection
Drilling Phase - Finishing the Blast Hole
Retraction Phase - Drill String Hang-Up Protection
Retraction Phase - Clean Out Hole/Hole Check

Figure 2. Example of Dynamic Automated Drill Process No Human Intervention


Strategic Maintenance and Improving Utilization
The mechanical availability of the drill drives its level of utilization. OEM and third party machine
health monitoring systems for drills have been available for many years. These are invaluable tools for
monitoring machine health and performance and allows for strategic maintenance scheduling rather than
waiting for a failure.
Most automation systems also include machine health recording. In addition to monitoring machine
health drill automation systems offer other advantages in improving drill availability and utilization:
1) One Touch and fully autonomous drill control systems do not allow operators to overextend the
capabilities of the machine or ground engaging tools during the drilling process, and
2) Automated drill controls may be programmed to shut down systems before catastrophic failures
can occur.

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Effects on Hole Loading and Blasting
Drill automation provides advantages in blast-hole loading and blasting by improving:
1) Drill Accuracy With the use of GPS positioning the accurate placement of blast-hole collars
and correct hole depth/bench elevation provides pattern geometries that are consistently on plan.
2) Blast-Hole Quality Proper collaring improves the consistency of borehole diameter and angle.
(See Figure 3).
3) Fragmentation Proper blast pattern geometry results in better and more consistent
fragmentation. In addition to affecting loading and haulage it is of major importance in
operations that utilize primary crushing and/or heap leach mineral extraction.
4) Custom Hole Loading Geologic profiles from drilling data can show differential hardness of
the rock for each foot of hole, an average hardness for the entire hole, and the presence and
location of soft or hard bands and voids. Figure 4 illustrates how one operation uses a hardness
index to plan blast hole loading. The mine utilizes different blasting agent blends depending on
the average hardness of the rock in that hole.

Manual Drilling Automated Drilling

Figure 3. Hole Quality Comparison Manual versus Automated Drilling Process

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Figure 4. Plan View of Pit Average Rock Hardness

Case Study Open Pit Iron Ore


The open pit iron ore mine in this study produces approximately 44.9 million metric tons of ore annually
with a stripping ratio of 3.5 tons of waste per ton of ore. The dominant ore body is hematite with a
specific gravity of 3.25 g/cc and compressive strength of 40,000 psi.
The mine typically drills a 9 7/8 (251mm) hole on a 20 (6.1m) x 21 (6.4m) pattern to a bench height
of 41 feet, (12.5 meters). Their fleet consists of six diesel powered Cat 6420C drills. Mechanical
availability of the drills had increased to 85%-90% the last two months of the study.
Automation of the drill fleet began in June, 2015 with the installation of a One Touch style system on
one drill to test the efficacy of the technology. Two more drills were added in August, 2015, one in
September, 2015, and the final two in November, 2015. Ultimately the mine hopes to achieve fully
autonomous drilling for the entire fleet in 2017.
Implementation of Drill Automation
The percentage of holes drilled using automation increased over time as operators were trained and
gained confidence in the technology. Note that in February the drills were on stand-down due to an
accident at the mine. By the end of the study period 85% of the planned holes were drilled using
automation.

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Drill Accuracy
Accuracy of drill-hole placement is measured on three planes X axis (burden), Y axis (spacing), and Z
axis (bottom hole elevation/depth). At this operation surveyors mark the collar locations prior to
drilling. The drillers tram the machine using a targeting device on their automation system to align the
drill over the intended blast-hole location. When the drill bit contacts the ground the system records the
coordinates and elevation of the collar. Comparing the surveyed coordinates pre-drilling and the actual
drilled coordinates determines drilling accuracy.
Prior to automation of the fleet anywhere from 10% to as high as 30% of the holes were off plan
meaning off by at least one hole diameter in one or all of the three planes. Figure 5 illustrates the
improvements using automation with GPS as more than 90% of the holes were drilled on plan (X, Y, &
Z axes) in the most recent three months.

60%
DrillingAccuracy
50%
40%
30%
20%
10%
0%
Jun15 Jul15 Aug15 Sep15 Oct15 Nov15 Dec15 Jan16 Feb16 Mar16 Apr16 May16 Jun16

Figure 5. Drilling Accuracy Percentage of Holes Not On Plan


Penetration Rate
Hole to hole penetration rates utilize the meters drilled/hole over the drill cycle time. The drill cycle
time includes time to tram to the hole collar, level the drill, collar the hole, drill the hole, retract the drill
string, retract the jacks, and begin the move to the next hole. Figure 6 shows at the start of
implementation the average drill cycle penetration rate was approximately 42.64 ft/hr, (13.0
meters/hour). The current level after automation averages 58.25 ft/hr, (17.76 meters per hour), an
increase of 27%.

DrillCyclePenetrationRate,Meters/Hour
FleetAverage
25
19.8
20 18.1 17.7
16.5 16.2 16.3
14.2 14.5
15 13.0 12.3
9.6
10
DrillStandownDuetoAccident

5
Aug15 Sep15 Oct15 Nov15 Dec15 Jan16 Feb16 Mar16 Apr16 May16 Jun16

Figure 6. Drill Cycle Penetration Rates

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Drilled Meters per Month
For costing purposes most mine operations typically assign an operating cost against some measure of
machine productivity, such as the number of feet drilled. By this measure Figure 7 illustrates that as the
utilization of automated drilling increased by approximately 18% the last six months the drilled footage
increased by 46%, or 11,785(3593m) to 24,958 (7609m).

FleetAverageMeters/Month
10000
7700 7609
8000
5695
6000 4369 4218
3879 3593 4088
4000 2543 2288
2000
DrillStandDownDuetoAccident 285
0
Aug15 Sep15 Oct15 Nov15 Dec15 Jan16 Feb16 Mar16 Apr16 May16 Jun16

Figure 7 Drilled Meters per Month Fleet Average

Drill Productivity
The productivity of a drill is measured as the average drilling time per hole versus the available drilling
hours. The baseline for this mine prior to automation was 40%. Figure 8 illustrates how overall
productivity of the fleet has increased by over 50% since automation was implemented.

FleetAverageProductivity 75.5%
80% 71.9%
63.2%
54.7% 54.8%
60% 49.0%
48.1%
44.0%
40%
27.5%
15.6%
20%

DrillStandown DuetoAccident 6.3%


0%
Aug15 Sep15 Oct15 Nov15 Dec15 Jan16 Feb16 Mar16 Apr16 May16 Jun16

Figure 8. Drilling Productivity Fleet Average

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Consistent Drill Performance
Probably one of the more interesting changes in drilling activity using automation is how fleet
performance becomes uniform with very little variation between drills and operators. This offers
tremendous advantages in planning and forecasting. Figure 9 illustrates how each automated drill at this
mine has achieved very consistent production levels.

DRILLCYCLEPENETRATIONRATES
40.0
35.0
30.0
25.0
20.0
15.0
10.0
5.0
0.0

Figure 9. Drill Cycle Penetration Rates by Drill


Tonnage and Feet Drilled - Plan vs. Actual
Production planning is tantamount to meeting customer demands for the mined commodity and
budgeting resources to meet that demand. Not meeting production means missed orders. Exceeding
production increases monthly costs and results in negative cash flow.
Figure 10 illustrates how this operation has become able to consistently hit their planned production
levels as drill automation usage increased.

ProductionHistoryAugust2015 June2016
6,000,000 50,000
DrilledMeters

5,000,000 40,000
4,000,000 30,000
Tons

3,000,000
2,000,000 20,000
1,000,000 10,000
0

PlannedTonnage DrilledTonnage PlannedMeters DrilledMeters

Figure 10. Production History Plan versus Actual

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Safety
Safety may be improved by the reduction of unplanned drill maintenance and extending the life of
ground engaging tools. For instance, increased bit life, reducing the incidence of bent drill rods, and
extending the life of the rods by automating rod changing all contribute to less maintenance and
downtime. This has the effect of reducing the exposure time of maintenance personnel to hazards on the
bench.
Other features available on some systems include tilt monitoring, jack-on-ground protection, pipe-in-
hole protection, and proximity detection.
Full automation removes the operator from the drill altogether and reduces exposure to hazards such as
drilling beneath highwalls or over underground works.
In addition to reducing labor costs full automation allows one operator to run multiple drills thus
reducing the number of personnel on the drill bench. Fully autonomous drilling necessarily requires
blast hole loading to be done after the pattern is drilled. While loading right behind the drill is
advantageous in high volume operations it introduces many hazards to the blasters as they navigate
between the drills on foot and in the powder trucks. The increased efficiency of autonomous drilling
allows for this operational transition at most mine sites.
Conclusions
Among the four basic types of automation described in this paper, systems that dynamically control the
drilling process (level, collar, drill, retract steel & retract jacks) without operator intervention appear to
generate the greatest gains in productivity relative to manual drilling.
Our case study at an open pit iron ore mine using a One Touch control system demonstrated these
benefits that contributed to the operators Return on Investment:

1. Optimized Asset Utilization


Efficiencies gained through automation of the drilling process lead to more bit-in-ground time.
In our case study penetration rates were increased 27% and feet drilled per month 46% relative to
manual drilling.

2. Better Fragmentation
All levels of automation that utilize GPS and other field controls such as face profiling enable the
drills to optimize fragmentation. By introducing an automated dynamic drill process hole quality
is also enhanced. Ultimately, improving fragmentation at the mining face will result in improved
shovel productivity, faster loading times, reduced truck cycle-time, and increased throughput at
the crusher. Wear and tear on the loading, hauling, and crushing equipment is also reduced.

3. Improved Operator Proficiency & Production


Increased operator proficiency is realized by using an automated drilling process. Even with
different levels of driller experience the operation is able to achieve consistent, repeatable drill
production. This is borne out by data at the case study location where planned versus actual drill
production was met each of the last four months of the study.

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4. Increased Productivity
Production is increased by shortening of the drill cycle time across the fleet (level, collar, drill,
retract steel & retract jacks). Strategic utilization of machine health data also increases
availability and utilization with availability levels at this operation in the range of 85% to 90%.
The One Touch drill automation control system at this operation saw productivity over the entire
fleet improved by over 50%. As a result the mine operator has the option to reduce the number
of drills in the fleet and still meet production.

5. Superior Bench Control


The One Touch control system used in our case study establishes the elevation of the hole collar
using GPS. The system then drills to an exact elevation, not depth, creating more level benches.
This offers efficiencies in subsequent operations and improves ore control.

6. Safety
Unplanned repairs and maintenance are reduced through the use of automation. Minimizing the
time repair personnel are exposed to the hazards inherent to working on an active drill bench
reduces the probability of injury. With full automation the hazards of drilling beneath highwalls
or over underground works is eliminated. Full automation also requires hole loading to be
accomplished after the pattern is drilled. Removal of the powder crew from the hazards of
navigating around the drills further reduces the probability of accidents.

Acknowledgments

Kevin Landey Global Business Development, Automation, Flanders South Africa


Jimmy Elkins Global Business Development, Automation, Flanders USA

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