VUG embarks on an automation journey

De Beers has devised an autonomous mining roadmap for its Venetia Underground Mine (VUG) that will – once fully implemented – result in the new US$2 billion mine becoming one of the most mechanised and automated mining operations in the world.

The VUG replaces openpit operations at the Venetia Diamond Mine and extends mine life to at least 2046. Expected to start production within 2023, it will use the sub-level cave mining method. According to Giel Marais, Principal Automation & Information at De Beers, the objective in terms of automation at the Venetia Underground Mine (VUG) is to have a number of autonomous mining systems performing multiple mining processes by 2027.

“This is an ambitious goal but we believe achievable given the major technological advances made in recent years, particularly by the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) who produce underground mining machines,” he says. “In the case of the VUG, our primary technology partner is Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, which manufactures a full range of ‘intelligent’ mining machines that can operate independently underground within access controlled safety zones or be remotely operated from control rooms on surface.”

Marais’ colleague, Freddie Breed, Underground Technical Services Manager at De Beers, points out that the group has previous experience of autonomous mining. “De Beers commissioned the first – and only – automated trucking loop in South Africa, and one of the first worldwide, at the Finsch diamond mine in the Northern Cape in 2005,” he says. “

Finsch system

Marais says that while the Finsch system was revolutionary it was also limited in some respects. “The system was limited to one machine type – articulated dump trucks (ADTs) – performing one process, namely hauling, on a single level of the mine,” he explains. “By contrast, at the VUG we will eventually have a number of mining systems operational, with a variety of machines, not just ADTs, executing multiple mining processes within the same operational area. These systems will be deployed and operating simultaneously during a shift on different levels of the mine.”

The implementation of automation at the VUG will be carefully phased in on an incremental basis starting with automated machines (which still require an onboard operator although many functions are automated). Next to be introduced will be autonomous machines (which do not require an onboard operator as they are equipped with automated machine navigation and tramming and can perform – while stationary in one location – most sets of routine functions without operator input required during the cycle). The final phase of implementation will see the introduction of full autonomous mining systems.

The key characteristic of autonomous mining systems is the use of multiple autonomous machines which are managed by an integrated central traffic management system. The machines operate in predefined safety zones that are dynamically combined to create autonomous operating areas.

Autonomous mining not only creates a safer and healthier environment for workers (by removing them from potential high risk areas of the mine) but, if implemented correctly, is also more productive than traditional techniques when measured in terms of output against available operating time.

Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions is supplying all the primary mining equipment for the VUP for both mine development and production. This includes machines for development and production drilling, rock reinforcement, and loading and hauling. Sandvik is also providing its AutoMine® system for the remote operation of loaders and trucks and its OptiMine® system for machine health monitoring, task management and location tracking.

As one of the first steps in its automation journey, the VUG is about to commission a pilot project which will prepare the production team for the use of remote loading at the drawpoints and autonomous tramming to the tip. With cave mining, there is a risk of mud-rushes and water ingress at drawpoints and remote loading will allow material to be loaded without putting operators at risk.

“This pilot project will have a single loader operating under AutoMine® Lite in a dedicated area on 44 Level that is isolated from other areas of the mine,” says Breed. “The machine will be controlled locally from a mobile tele-remote station just outside the autonomous operating area and not from surface.” He adds that an integrated operations centre on surface at Venetia Mine is under construction and that it will be equipped and commissioned in H1-2023.

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