Only Robots Should Slave Away, Not Humans: Innovative Drilling System Deployed in Siberia


Imagine a piece of heavy machinery works in harsh and occasionally dangerous conditions, where instead of an operator controlling the production process in comfort and maximum safety from a remote cabin, operations are controlled by an independent state-of-the-art automation system. Until quite recently this was the stuff of science fiction stories, in which visionaries describe the capabilities of future technologies. But today, it is already a reality.


VIST Group (a subsidiary of Zyfra Group), a leader in the field of digitalization of large mining enterprises, has begun developing an unmanned drilling technology in the Tugnuysky coal mine (Republic of Buryatia). The new system is intended to minimize the number of employees involved in hazardous and dangerous work while maintaining or even reducing drilling costs.


It is anticipated that this innovative solution will significantly improve operational safety and efficiency in the Siberian mines, which rank among the world's largest coal mining centers. Thanks to the new technology, it will be possible to move drills independently or in remote mode along with the stack, drill shafts, assemble and dismantle the drilling assembly and level the platform. An algorithm will be used to determine the optimal sequence of drilling the shafts, taking into account their relative position and type of rock mass.


The system will operate as follows: The drill operator will move the equipment to the required stack in manual mode. Another employee will then remotely set a drilling plan for the drill rig in this area and engage the independent operation mode. At the same time, the system’s built-in safety algorithms will control the drill’s movement, being responsive to the equipment and employees performing auxiliary work in the area. Personnel operating near the drill will be equipped with an emergency shut-down device, which, if necessary, will immediately stop the robotic equipment.


The operator will exercise remote control from his computer workstation located at the enterprise and, if necessary, will be able to quickly take control of the equipment during any process operation, such as in the event of complex non-standard situations. In this case, the digital system will actively help the human operator, warning of potentially dangerous factors while displaying the status and additional information. Specialists will be able to remotely control the engines, compressors and controllers, moving, turning, mast raising and lowering mechanisms, assembly of the drilling unit, the braking system, drilling itself, etc. In addition, the dispatcher will deal with security issues such as the admission of equipment and people to the automated site.


In general, however, the human role will be minimized, and if any intervention is required this will only be in rare specific cases. The automation systems themselves will cope perfectly well with the tasks. Satellite navigation and special drill control programs that are activated when directly approaching a specific location will provide incredible pointing accuracy of up to 10 cm. The system will also develop routes for the drill’s movement between the wells, paying great attention to the optimal path and the absence of unnecessary actions and thereby minimizing costs.


The drill, without the intervention of personnel, will be able to level the platform and the mast independently with an accuracy of 1 degree in two planes, based on two-axis inclinometer readings, processing current data and generating commands to the alignment mechanisms on the basis of this data. Digital control of these mechanisms will be provided, and depending on their design, it will be possible to use mechanical actuators, electrical or control signals through the standard CAN industrial network.


A number of subsystems and algorithms will be created for independent drilling. In particular, a set of sensors for monitoring parameters (feed forces, rotation forces, and speeds, gas-water mixture pressure, depths, etc.) will be installed in the equipment, as well as a subsystem based on actuators and feedback sensors for assembly build-up and dismantling.


The automatic drilling itself is the most complex and demanding operation. Initially, at the development stage, a conventional drill controlled by a machinist in the traditional manual mode will be equipped with sensors to ensure accuracy and reliability. The entire data set on its operation will be carefully recorded, and the initial and changing conditions will be compared with the drilling parameters and the driver’s commands. The resulting information is used to configure and optimize the drilling algorithm.


The robotic drill will harmoniously fit into the enterprise’s existing data environment. The existing MTC Karier management system will handle fuel consumption metering and reporting issues. The newly developed solution will become a part of the Intelligent Mine system, making it possible in the future to centralize control over several drills simultaneously, including simultaneous operation of these rigs in the same stack.


The drill used is the Epiroc Pit Viper 271. This equipment will have a pre-set for independent performance of most operations that are usually performed manually by the operator. It will be furnished with additional functions: motion control, environment scanning (including the possibility of remote presence), automatic testing of the installed equipment, high-precision positioning and emergency shut-down, as well as two-way data transmission. At the same time, manual control from the cabin will still be possible in normal mode.


The equipment installed on the rig will include a system of environmental scanning sensors (short-range and long-range radars, 3D light identification detection and ranging device), which will ensure early detection of any obstacles, bunded areas or cliff edges, and will prevent collisions. A multi-level automatic testing system will prevent the failure of various elements. The controller will monitor the status of the assemblies and the connection to the server, and compare the data from different subsystems. The server will check the stability of communication with all elements and compare the data received from them.


The emergency shut-down button will provide the maximum level of safety for personnel working at the robotized site. When it is pressed, a signal will be transmitted through a separate radio channel at a specific frequency directly to the actuators, bypassing the server, multi-level software, switches, and installed computers. This ensures maximum reliability and instant response of the equipment.


The project will use modern high-quality equipment, including an industrial onboard computer with independent control software which contains the basic logic of the drill control, I / O controllers for controlling analogue and discrete signals, a set of environmental scanning sensors (light identification detection and ranging devices, radars, ultrasonic sensors) and recording of drilling parameters and the condition of the moving parts of the rig, as well as other technical elements.


VIST Group has no doubt that the automated solution being developed will prove its economic efficiency during the planned pilot operation and will significantly increase the safety of production processes. As we speak, experts are ascertaining the possibility of deeper digitalization and more advanced operation of the enterprise, addressing all the challenges and tasks dictated by the new industrial revolution that is taking place before our eyes.

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