Making a First Pass

FLANDERS is the leading non-drill OEM supplier of autonomous drilling technology to the global mining market, with users from Roy Hill in Australia to Kolomela in South Africa. Paul Moore caught up with the Manager of Product Development Josh Goodwin and General Manager, Mike Lane.

Q What role does age play in retrofitting drills to make the cost and deliver performance worldwide?

ML The conversion of drills to the ARDVARC autonomous control system is straightforward. It will provide many years of reliable service provided the machine is in good initial and ongoing well-maintained condition. Therefore, the age of the drill is irrelevant, provided it is fully functional and operating correctly with consistent repeatability of variables for given functions. We often encounter used drills during the initial drill condition assessment, where parts that are worn beyond their ability to provide efficient performance need to be replaced prior to the introduction of the autonomous conversion.

Another consideration for the conversion of older drills is the business case, particularly the ROI for the investment or the driver for the initiative. The motivation is not always as narrow as that single asset, but for the greater good. It is usual for an older, lower, performing drill on-site that is in less demand by production to be handed over for conversion. This is typically used for initial trials of the technology to provide the definition and project documentation and hence the justification of the large-scale rollout, including the essential pillars for introducing the autonomy of People, Process & Technology.

Q Can you give some idea of how the FLANDERS system today differs from previous incarnations in capability?

JG The Flanders system today, compared to previous incarnations, is mainly around the ease and use of the system, making the machine smarter and taking away the onus on the controller. We have collaborated with our partners/clients to standardise and improve our system design, rewiring and changing the location of components on the drill, making it easier for system techs and maintainers to fault find and troubleshoot, plus utilising OEM sensors that are less intrusive. At the ARDVARC Drill Innovation Hub in Perth, Western Australia, we continually redefine the boundaries of blast hole drill automation. We draw upon the knowledge, ideas, and requests from our 15 regional service centres worldwide, regularly reaching out to end users, and some 350 specialists in supporting technologies up and downstream of drilling, actively contributing to enhancing existing features and implementing new ones.

The collaborative development model has provided progressive improvements towards true Level 5 autonomy, reduction in cost and duration for autonomous conversion, and advanced functionality that provides reduced running costs & increased machine life, pen rates and overall availability of the drill. Features such as rod handling for multi-pass, auto bit changers and data for measuring while drilling is common expectations within a system. We are experiencing greater interest in the software interfacing API so that end users can acquire drill data for asset health, blast technologies and performance metrics.

Q: Many customers want autonomous capability on existing machines versus new machines? What is the value proposition for a miner to go with Flanders versus the OEM on a new drill?

JG, I would say it is still even between customers wanting autonomous capability on existing machines versus new machines. However, I would say more new machine purchases are made with autonomy in mind. The benefits of replacing the OEM system on a new drill with the FLANDERS system are our interoperability with other systems, our capabilities and how agile we adapt the system to meet the customer’s specific needs. We offer an open platform if you like the Android of surface drilling automation. Drill and blast software packages can easily use our drilling data, and we integrate it into FMS systems, such as GPS location and time usage modelling. It is an agnostic solution for operators with mixed fleets, old and new. It standardises a drill fleet onto one system, which is good for operators and data collection.

Many early adopters of the technology have completed the conversion of existing drills on their mine sites. We are now experiencing a trend change for them to convert new drills released from the OEM’s yards into ours for fit-out and commissioning prior to mine site delivery. This greatly benefits end users from accessing the drills away from the mine site in a controlled, safer environment. Their personnel receive the detailed and easy-to-follow theory training in class, then out to the adjacent workshop assisting us with the conversion process to build their confidence and familiarity with the various components that make up the autonomous kit on the drills they will eventually monitor and maintain.

The early and late majority of technology adopters appear to be in the early to mid stages of autonomous drill conversions to their existing drills. This is done mostly on-site, with some exceptions of offsite conversions for drills undergoing a mid-life rebuild followed by an autonomous conversion fit-out. This is the best time to carry out the work, even if the scheduled rebuild is brought forward, as it ensures all mechanical functions are in good operating order, required for a reliable outcome. Typically a wider trainee audience can be reached without the distraction and demands placed upon them whilst on site. Site training often results in personnel being drawn out of the classroom to attend to urgent matters resulting in knowledge gaps.

Regardless of the drill age, they can always be automated to the latest technology. It is especially rewarding to see older drills given a new lease of life, performing as well as the newer models on the same drill pattern.

The Flanders ARDVARC autonomous drill solution is OEM agnostic that is particularly convenient for mine sites with a mixed fleet of drills. Components are commonly available off the shelf, support is available 24/7, the control system is advanced and easy to operate, and drill data is openly shared with our clients through a software interface.

Q Also, among smaller miners and mid-tiers that may not want to invest in the network infrastructure for full autonomy, is tele-remote proving itself in demand?

Where short-term contract work is undertaken, the nimble operators like Ozland, with a single centralised remote operations centre, are operating drills in tele-remote, capitalising in this space. The operator’s skillsets are specialised, deployment is rapid, and the communications infrastructure being relocatable, is often included by the contractor. The exception is onsite operators using line-of-sight tele-remote where external communications are not effectively established, often due to available bandwidth in remote locations. As network communication options are increasing and more providers are emerging, as expected, we have noticed more competitive establishment costs and ongoing fees, extending the benefits to smaller miners and mid-tiers that would not have considered this option in the recent past.

Q With the drill OEMs now also offering retrofit, is the market getting more difficult for FLANDERS, and are the OEMs making their latest drills less interoperable to prevent third-party solutions from being applied?

JG There are many more players in the market now, which makes it more difficult, though it means customers are looking more closely at the systems to ensure that they fit and work with all the other systems they have on site. Yes, OEMs are making their latest drills less interoperable, but the ARDAVRC solution is open to working with any third-party solution, be it through a level of control or data transfer. Also, in terms of the latest drills from OEMs, it’s easier for us to convert them, as they are coming autonomous-ready, which means they have the majority of sensors that we would generally have to fit into the machine. For example, we have the latest Cat MD6250 and CAT MD6310 auto-equipped and converted in record time.

ML The larger drill OEMs are now releasing their own autonomous drill solutions, which is a positive move for the industry. There are several side-by-side comparisons now with third-party autonomous control system providers against the OEM solution. The more astute mine site operators conduct their trial or study, assessed on overall value, not necessarily the initial cost to buy the autonomous kit. There is a tendency for the OEMs to do a package deal for the drill and the autonomous solution that does not always equate to good value.

Comprehensive feasibility studies extend into important far, reaching and often overlooked factors such as prompt, reliable local service with direct access to specialists at all hours, the replacement cost of parts, nimbleness, and flexibility to innovate, ease of use and transparency into the system for interoperability and commonly used, best in class readily available trialled and tested components.

Read full article by Paul Moore, International Mining > April Magazine 2021