October 15, 2023
Boom time for high-tech breaking
Xrock® Automation is a cutting-edge breaker boom automation system from Normet that is evidence of the continuing shift towards automation in the mining industry, says Santeri Lampinen, Research Engineer at Normet.
Thanks, Santeri, for finding the time to talk to us today. How long have you been working with the Xrock® Automation technology, and what exactly is it?
I’ve been working with the Xrock Automation project for two years now, and before that my PhD research on boom automation was funded by Rambooms (a company Normet acquired early 2023) where I was collaborating with the design of the Xrock Automation. You could say I was fated to work here from the beginning.
Xrock Automation is a breaker boom automation and tele-remote system. We started developing it because we realised that a mining revolution is underway, driven by safety and economic incentives and the demand for ever more intelligent systems. Xrock Automation helps mines get the best possible value from their breaker boom processes. It’s scalable and customisable so it’s easy for our customers to take advantage of the system with minimal risk.
In general, what kinds of benefits does automation bring to the mining industry?
The biggest impact is safety. When we can operate machines remotely it means that operators no longer need to be present in harsh, hostile environments. Removing operators from underground is the safest thing you can do.
Automation and remote operations also improve efficiency. For example, you no longer need to transport personnel into the mine, which can take a long time. All they have to do is take off their jacket in the control room and start working. Shift changes are much faster. And if we can automate some tasks then we also improve our production data collection and forecasts.
What kind of technical features are particularly noteworthy in the Xrock Automation system?
Well, we’ve introduced many new features to the breaker boom business. Xrock Automation builds on two independently scalable subsystems – the operator station and the boom system. The operator station is highly ergonomic, easy to install, and intuitive to control. The boom itself has a range of standard and optional features to maximise breaking efficiency. Things like diagnostic tools, high-quality video, different control modes, anti-collision systems, automatic boom motions, and so on.
It's also possible to be very accurate with the breaker booms. Depending on the rock, operators might need to strike a boulder just at the right angle in a specific place to effectively break it.
How does the Xrock Automation product fit into Normet’s general technology strategy?
Overall, a lot of the things we do for boom automation are applicable to other Normet products. For example, scaling booms use very similar techniques in their workflows. Automation and autonomous operations will need equivalent tools. Their systems need to work in similar environments and overcome similar problems – boulders, loose rocks, and so on. Because Normet has such a wide range of process knowledge, it’s natural that we share the same goals with different products.
Incorporating Xrock Automation into a Normet digital ecosystem is also one of our aims. We want to make systems digital and be able to collect data from a fleet of machines that can be used to monitor performance, identify issues, and so on throughout all our processes. Similarly, training processes for Xrock Automation might be incorporated into other Normet training methods such as VR simulators.
Finally, how do you see the future of automation and digital technology in mining?
The shift towards automation is well underway in the mining industry. In some processes, like load hauling, there is the possibility of operators monitoring a fleet of autonomous machines from one location. We already provide something like this with our Fleet option for Xrock Automation – there’s a central control location from where several booms can be controlled individually. But in the future the booms themselves will be automated.
We have quite a broad set of issues we have to consider. It’s not only about control engineering and robotics but things like computer vision, software engineering and combining different areas of research. Developing operation strategies that mimic the way human operators perform certain tasks and combining that with the machine’s situational awareness can be tricky. Integrating all of these elements into one system is really interesting.
Our ultimate goal is to have fully automated boom that would be able to detect and perceive its surroundings and use its own decision making to decide what to do and how, and if it can do the job itself or needs help. This is achievable.
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