Miners take "rail-veyors" and robots to automated future

Sun Oct 28, 2012 3:42pm EDT
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By Julie Gordon

SUDBURY, Ontario (Reuters) - In an office trailer parked outside a mine shaft in northern Ontario, operator Carolyn St-Jean leans back in her chair and monitors a machine loading nickel-rich ore into rail cars deep underground.

Once filled, the automated train will snake through a series of narrow tunnels, emerge from a rocky outcropping, then loop past St-Jean's window and dump its payload for sorting.

Vale SA, the Brazilian company that owns the mine near this nickel-rich Canadian town, has spent nearly $50 million in two years to install and test the "rail-veyor." The company believes the transport system will revolutionize how it builds and extracts new mineral deposits.

The equipment is made locally by Rail-Veyor Technologies Global Inc. It is one of many mining technologies that developers hope will allow future production to be run almost entirely by people safely above ground.

Such advances may prove crucial as easy-to-exploit deposits run dry and miners drill deeper in more remote places to supply China, India and other emerging economies. The technology could make mining cheaper and safer, avoiding the need to dig wide tunnels and hire large numbers of expensive, skilled workers.

"As we go deeper, if we continue to apply existing thinking and existing technologies, it's a death spiral" for company profits, said Alex Henderson, who heads Vale's technology team in Sudbury.

"We need to begin to look at a step-change in mining rather than just incrementally improving our existing processes."

The rail-veyor is one such step-change. At the test site, it has halved the time to build a mine, and Vale expects a 150 percent boost in production rates before year end.   Continued...

An automated train dumps ore in a sorting area after transporting it from thousands of meters underground at Vale's Copper Cliff mine near Sudbury, Ontario October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Julie Gordon