Monday, October 3, 2011

Is Mining about to go Micro - Post 3

In Part 3 we look at some of the technologies that will underpin automation.

If you could have smaller vehicles operating independently and automatically you might be able to make an economic case for this scenario. Of course you'd need to implement all of the technologies you need to operate a large number of autonomous vehicles. I'll cover a few such technologies here and provide some idea of where that technology is today and where it might be heading.
Advanced Analytics
The use of analytical algorithms that assist with making many low level decisions is quite advanced in many industries. Because the mining industry is not as technologically mature as others, there is plenty of opportunity to learn from how, say, the aerospace industry uses these advanced analytical techniques to remove the need for human intervention in many processes. Aircraft can now land themselves on autopilot, a specific and highly complex event that needs microsecond by microsecond adjustment of aircraft and engine power in three dimensions, and responding to highly dynamic changes in the surrounding environment in real time. All of this can happen with a plane load of hundreds of people. As a specific task, they don't come much more complicated, and this level of knowledge is in use today in commercial airliners. Many of the technologies and techniques are available for use in the mining industry today.
Smart sensors
Many of the individual, microsecond decisions can actually be undertaken away from the smart core algorithm by smart sensors operating at the periphery of a complex computer algorithm. For very well understood and constrained processes a smart sensor might ‘decide’ to provide data to a central algorithm only when the process deviates from a pre-established norm. For example, a smart thermometer might only report fluctuations in engine temperature outside of a particular range, or if the temperature changes much faster than expected. This takes pressure off the central processing ability of the system.
Machine Intelligence
Both advanced analytical capabilities and smart sensors lead the way to 'machine intelligence'; the ability of a machine to have some level of understanding of the environment around it and of its role within that environment. At the moment, small mobile machines are being designed with levels of intelligence approximating insects. Indeed, some of these machines are incorporating insect neurons within the machine's IT architecture. These machines learn!
At the moment, these machines are even programmed to behave like insects - seeking areas of warmth, running away from the light etc, which might not immediately seem of use to the mining industry, but that is not the limit of what they might be ultimately be capable of.
With all of these things being either in existence now, or being actively researched, machine autonomy may not be very far away at all. Indeed Komasu and Caterpillar have already produced haul trucks that can be operated remotely, and are working on being able to operate autonomously. Work at the CRCMining ( ) has some machinery automated for some of their functions. To help cope with the communications lag times the Mars Rovers have limited levels of autonomy to allow them to move around on the service of Mars with minimal intervention by people.
Another technology that is critical to automating machinery is robotics. Robotics incorporates all of the other technologies discussed here, but also concerns the form and function of the machines. Robotic science is very highly advanced and very sophisticated. Some of the recent advances look to nature to inspire the development of robots, and it is here that I believe the mining industry can look for the future of the mining process.

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