The underground tele-remote system being piloted on a couple of loading vehicles at Barrick’s Cortez Hills Underground mine in Nevada recently scooped the first of many ore buckets—operated by a miner in a specialized chair from the surface. The project is part of Barrick’s digital transformation, and these scoops were part of the commissioning process for the first automated loader on site.
“I’ve watched a million YouTube videos of it just to see what it looks like and it was really, really cool to see this in action,” says Ben Gunn, Senior Mining Engineer at Cortez and Product Owner for the Underground Tele-Remote project. “To see it actually moving our ore and working in our underground with our operators sitting in the chair—it was awesome.”
There’s been a lot of work behind this, with many groups collaborating together and working to the highest safety and health and operations standards.
The loader, also known as a mucker, was able to pull 36 buckets of ore out from the underground or about 452 tons of material in its first day in action. This compares to 45 buckets in a usual shift, but with a bucket that is 50 percent larger. What’s more, the larger mucker was able to navigate the underground tunnels where gold is mined, or “stopes,” much faster and more safely by using a co-piloting function. This gives an operator the ability to let a system of sensors guide the machine back to a pre-determined dumping point at a faster speed than a person typically drives.
“I had done remote and a little bit of tele-remote before but this new system was even better because you’re not down there taking on the exhaust, breathing dust or dealing with possible rock falls,” says Eric Orozco, one of the first underground miners to try the tele-remote system at Cortez. “All that stuff is better for your health.”
The co-pilot feature will reduce stress that operators may experience while navigating narrow, often winding stopes while reducing the wear and tear on equipment and allow for larger equipment to be used in the same-sized stope.
The system will enable one operator to take over from the other as soon as his or her shift begins. This could add 60 to 90 minutes of additional production time on each shift because operators no longer have to gear up and get to their equipment deep underground. Usually, this changeover is the time when blasting is done in the underground and personnel must be cleared out to do this. All of this will contribute to moving gold ounces forward more efficiently and helping our operators be that much more productive.
“There’s been a lot of work behind this, with many groups collaborating together and working to the highest safety and health and operations standards,” says Miguel Lamadrid, Cortez’s Underground Mine Manager. “The operations, electrical and the instrumentation and communication team have really jumped through hoops for us to help get us to the piloting stage of this project.”
Currently, operators have to use what’s called a “line-of-sight remote” system where, after an underground blast opens up a new stope, they drive to the edge of said stope where the ground is still supported. They must then climb down from their equipment and use a remote control to scoop ore from 100 feet away.
“In this situation, you’re climbing three steps up a ladder every time, so imagine taking 200 buckets in a day,” says Theo Kandawasvika, Cortez’s Technical Services Superintendent, Underground Division. “That means you get off and on that loader about 200 times so you get tired really quick and all the while you have a heavy remote around your neck.”
Following the initial tests operators said that they liked that they were clean and well-rested at the end of their shift after using the tele-remote system.
The Underground Tele-remote team plans on trialing underground haul trucks very soon and will strive to prove that they can load said trucks tele-remotely during a shift. This will help pick up a few extra truckloads of ore every day. As a safety precaution, this area would be isolated so that no human operators or manned equipment are present during piloting.
The team will also be testing an autonomous drill. An operator would be able to use this equipment to set up a plan for the drill to follow as she leaves on shift change or during a pit blast. A long-hole drill was also purchased with automation technology that will eventually allow an operator to drill tele-remotely from the surface. Even more impressive—the drill will have a co-piloted tram function allowing it to move between its drill areas within a stope. This will enable drilling to continue 24/7.
“Our main challenge isn’t a machine or technology challenge,” Gunn says. “It’s a planning and sequencing challenge.”
The installation and distribution of Wi-Fi underground must be managed, since without it, the tele-remote equipment would cease to function, but the actual ore and non-gold bearing rock must also be managed. This ore must continue to be blasted at a rate that it is able to keep up with how quickly it is being hauled out of the underground while the mine must have enough space to store the non-gold bearing rock that needs to be cleared out.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve got the first couple of scoops but we’re still learning the system and learning how to manage this machine and our upcoming machines to make sure we’re maximizing the benefits we’re getting from them,” Lamadrid says. “That said, we’re approaching this as quickly and cautiously as we can because we understand that we must put our people first and if anyone gets hurt, this whole project will be a failure. The tons will come, we just need make sure we’re doing it right.”