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Partners: BHP, Deakin University, Woodside

Robotics in Underground Mining

The deserts of Western Australia may be isolated, but they are fertile ground for innovation, engineering activities and solution-based approaches. The field of technology that caters to the daily running of mine sites, specifically the ability to communicate to robots and machinery at a distance, is the field of remote operations. The benefits of remote operations technology were exhibited during a situation that unfolded in the BHP Nickel West drill mine in 2018.

The mine, situated in central Western Australia, developed an over-pressurised pipe far underground in one of the drill holes. As the pressure in the water pipe rose, an exclusion zone was enforced such that only appropriately protected and equipped personnel could enter the area, in turn preventing anyone rectifying the issue. The situation was deemed too dangerous for humans to release the pipe pressure manually, however it needed to be released as soon as possible.

Remote operations technology was employed to help solve the problem. BHP sought the robotics expertise of Woodside, which lead to Woodside teaming up with Deakin University, offering assistance on their functioning robots. Representatives from Deakin and Woodside joined BHP’s Nickel West and Technology teams at the site to resolve the issue. The team also gained assistance from the staff of the University of Texas, Clearpath (Canada) and NASA (Houston JSC), making this a truly global effort and an example of unbounded collaboration.

The Nickel West team applied their local knowledge to ensure the robots could safely work in the underground environment. Work included risk assessments and contingency plans, machine coding and the development of a tailored Wi-Fi system for communications. The machine coding included re-configuring some of the robotics systems, including the addition of health monitoring software. The teams conducted above-ground test runs with a mock-up pipe that mirrored the shape and angle of the pipe underground. They tested a range of tools and equipment on both the Woodside and Deakin robots, determining the best option to be a ‘parrot beak cutter’ attached to the Deakin robot. Luckily the Woodside robot, nicknamed ‘Ripley’, was able to rescue the Deakin robot should it encounter difficulty. The teams then conducted a second test run underground before moving to the exclusion zone.

The team was positioned just outside the tunnel entrance so that all personnel were at a safe distance. The robot itself could be controlled remotely; the first step was to execute the delicate task of manoeuvring the robot around obstacles to get to the pipe. The robot successfully cut the pipe and released the water pressure, battering the robot with water. With the pipe pressure subdued, the task had been completed successfully. Teams then recovered the robot.

This situation demonstrated the ability for BHP, Woodside and Deakin University to work together as a team to conduct and complete a high-risk operation. They did so by utilising specialised technology and employing robotics equipment which could be controlled at a distance, in the interests of safety. The quick response of the vehicle to commands as well as the visual feedback and health-monitoring mechanisms meant that those piloting the robot could ascertain the environment in real-time, increasing the chances for mission success. Less costly reparations could then be made at the drill hole, as well as site recovery. The time frame was just over a week from identifying the issue to it being fixed.

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