Improving Productivity with Fully Automated Blasthole Drilling

The ARDVARC Drill Control System (ADS) was developed initially to enhance fragmentation and ensure operators’ safety by preventing accidents near high walls. Automation has become a buzzword in the mining industry, with engineers worldwide striving for complete automation in open-pit mining. However, they often encounter site-specific variables requiring machines to think and problem-solve, overwhelming the overall operation. Despite these challenges, significant advances have been made in improving technology for repetitive processes like blasthole drilling.

In collaboration with its customers, FLANDERS continuously develops ARDVARC technology to make drilling programs more efficient and safer. The innovative drill technology stack, ARDVARC©, offered by FLANDERS, includes different levels of sophistication for the drill control system, ensuring a suitable offering regardless of the desired level of autonomy.

The ARDVARC system consists of One-Touch, Tele-Remote, and Autonomous configurations. The semi-auto-drill system combines the data management system with the One-Touch drill control, offering consistent performance and functionality. Tele-Remote, uses line of sight or remote access from up to 200m distance, removing the operator from dangerous areas. The system transforms your business into a safer and more effective mining operation. The Autonomous system takes it further by integrating an automatic propel and positioning system and an option for remote autonomous operation capabilities while retaining the One-Touch functionality.

Over 245 drills worldwide utilize the ARDVARC system, with over 28 drill types converted to ARDVARC control systems. According to Joshua Goodwin, Director of Autonomy at FLANDERS, clients are experiencing significant benefits, including improved fragmentation and productivity increases of up to 30%. Some customers also prioritize the safety aspect of remote operations near high walls, as remote operation allows operators to work close to the toe or edge without the risk of a high wall failure.

The adoption rate of the ARDVARC system at mines has been as expected. The drills interpret pre-programmed blast designs and consistently drill the entire round with minimal or no human intervention. The system anticipates and corrects the drilling process and provides comprehensive data on drill performance, health, strata mapping, and customized reports for maintenance and production.

System Overview

The ARDVARC Autonomous system offers complete autonomous drill control, improving drill performance and productivity while keeping operators away from hazardous areas. Goodwin explains, “The ARDVARC drill control system allows blasthole drillers to operate the machines in data collection/GPS positioning mode, a semi-autonomous mode, or fully autonomous mode.” In autonomous mode, there are no operators on the machine, and human interaction is limited to determining the sequence in which the holes are drilled.

In semi-automated drilling, the machine operator manually propels the machine to each hole location. Pressing a single button on the operator interface initiates the One-Touch drill cycle, which includes leveling, collaring, drilling, retracting the drill bit, and jacks. Once the cycle is completed, the operator switches the machine to propel mode and moves to the following hole location, restarting the process. At any time, the operator can take control of the automated drilling process and then return the drill to autonomous mode.

If an operator attempts an unauthorized action, the ARDVARC system provides a message explaining why the function cannot be completed and what needs to be done. For example, suppose the operator tries to lower the mast when the drill bit is too low, risking damage to the deck. In that case, the system will notify the operator to raise the bit to a safe limit before allowing further actions.

The Autonomous system offers complete autonomous control, including hazard and obstacle detection and mitigation, along with a remote monitoring station. With this architecture, the operator can be removed from the machine and placed in a safe location. A single operator can then monitor up to eight machines from a remote operation control room, only needing to interface with the machines to determine the sequence in which the operator drills the pattern.

Once the drill pattern sequence is determined, the ARDVARC drill control system executes the programmed drill sequence. The ARDVARC system has been implemented in over 31 mine sites worldwide. Additionally, each Autonomous system includes a short-range remote control, allowing the operator to be thousands of kilometers away from the drill when drilling needs to be done below an existing high wall or near the edge of a potentially unstable high wall.

FLANDERS’ automation technology group has developed the ARDVARC system primarily for the mining industry but remains open to exploring its application in other sectors.

Drill Control Systems

FLANDERS, known for designing and building motors for the mining industry, found that motor issues on drills were often drive-related rather than motor-related. The team developed a torque regulator and a drive replacement to address this, making slight control changes, creating the auto drill functionality, incorporating GPS to teach the drill where it should be drilling, and eventually adding the autonomous system.

Goodwin explains that most competitive systems control the drilling aspect during the drilling cycle without reacting to changing ground conditions. Operators still need to perform tasks such as leveling the machine, collaring the hole, and retracting the bit. In contrast, the ARDVARC auto drill requires no manual interaction, drilling holes without human intervention.

The system utilizes proprietary algorithms to detect potential issues, such as hole plugging, and automatically adjust the drilling process to prevent problems. A sensorless vibration detection system monitors the bit and identifies situations where the drill may get stuck in the hole. Hole caving, where rock falls from the side of the hole and blocks retraction, is also addressed by retracting the bit, allowing time for bail cuttings, and grinding the cuttings with the drill bit.

The ARDVARC system incorporates several automation features:

  • Pipe-in-hole Protection prevents the machine from entering the propel mode when the drill bit is lower than the safe propel set point, safeguarding the drill string from bending.
  • Hole Quality Assurance automatically detects when the hole needs to be cleaned during the retraction phase and measures the hole to ensure proper depth each time.
  • Hole Collar Quality Management enables dynamic automated collaring to ensure collaring to competent ground.
  • The All Stop is pressed when all machines currently in automated control mode need to be shut down.
  • Auto Levelling functionality automatically levels the machine within +/-0.2 degrees on 95% of holes.
  • Automatic Engine Shutdown shuts down the machine automatically in a catastrophic system failure.
  • Air Compressor Control regulates the air compressor’s bit air pressure through electronic air regulation, using air pressure feedback to control bit RPM and pull-down pressure.
  • Drill Energy Index dynamically adjusts drill parameters, including pull-down and rotation, based on ground conditions, updated every 30 cm.

Goodwin emphasizes the extensive drilling experience of the ARDVARC system, having drilled thousands of feet of holes. The system is OEM-agnostic and can be retrofitted on any machine type and model, whether electric or diesel/hydraulic controls. The autonomous function may pose challenges with electric drills due to trailing cables, which can be managed with a cable reel.

Hardware & Software

All ARDVARC hardware is readily available in an off-the-shelf format, with components accessible worldwide. The system consists of two main types of hardware: data collection hardware and machine control hardware.

For data collection purposes, the existing machine control system provided by the OEM is utilized, focusing on health monitoring and data collection. In Auto Drill applications, all hardware related to machine control supplied by the OEM is replaced with the ARDVARC hardware set. This set includes an Allen-Bradley Automation controller, a PC with a Windows XP operating system, a 17-inch touch panel display, and Human Machine Interface (HMI) software.

According to Goodwin, the ARDVARC control hardware has proven highly reliable. With over 245 drills operating in the field and more than 18 years of experience, FLANDERS has designed and implemented 28 drill models using the ARDVARC system.

All ARDVARC drill control systems are compatible with various high-precision GPS solutions available in the market, including Trimble, Septentrio, and Novatel.

FLANDERS has developed all the software components for the ARDVARC control system, comprising control software, HMI software, and the server. The control software handles all major drill functions, data collection, automation programming, and drilling and tram operations. The HMI software provides a user-friendly interface for operators. Additionally, FLANDERS has designed the server software to generate data, facilitate automation programming, and provide comprehensive reports.

At FLANDERS, our focus lies in upgrading and retrofitting blasthole drills using our ARDVARC Autonomous Drill system. Our OEM agnostic approach sets us apart, allowing us to install ARDVARC at mining sites employing a diverse range of drill types. This allows our customers to acquire new drills as they see fit and choose which existing ones to enhance with ARDVARC technology.

By implementing a singular Autonomous Drilling solution across all blasthole drills within a mining site, we establish a standardized platform encompassing essential processes and protocols necessary for safe and reliable operations. This standardization offers our mining clientele an array of opportunities and benefits, ultimately leading to consistent drilling practices and predictable rock fragmentation outcomes.