Autonomous drill screen and operator
Autonomous drill screen and operator

World-First Autonomous Drilling Solution Implemented in Australian Coal Operation

Learn more about how mining contractor Thiess was the first in the world to achieve a new level of drilling automation

By Caterpillar | Posted November 13, 2022

A mine site in Australia operated by mining contractor Thiess recently became home to a world-first autonomy solution —three Cat® rotary drill rigs being autonomously operated by a single operator. The achievement was a collaborative effort between Thiess, Cat® dealer WesTrac and Caterpillar.

“As the developer of the solution that makes this automation possible, we’re proud of this industry-first achievement,” says Caterpillar autonomous drilling specialist Mason Biernat. “But more than that, we’re proud of the collaborative approach it took to deliver the solution and the results our customer is experiencing — benefits to people, productivity and efficiency.”’

According to WesTrac, the project resulted in a 20% improvement in drilling performance, along with increased drill utilization, with operating times above 20 hours per drill per day. Accuracy has also improved with no redrilling required since the solution was rolled out.

“With autonomy, it’s important to point out the people benefits this solution delivers,” said Biernat. “Of course, removing workers from high-exposure environments is the most critical one. But this autonomous drilling solution also supports our customers’ retention efforts by providing new opportunities for operators, maintenance staff and the broader workforce.”

Announced in September, the project involved a phased implementation of Cat MineStar™ Command for drilling at one of Thiess’ Australian coal projects. Thiess worked closely with WesTrac and Caterpillar to collaboratively implement, test, enhance and evolve the systems and processes — even developing new software to help operators visualize drill patterns and progress in 3D.

"As the OEM, Caterpillar developed the drills and the technology layer to a certain point, but as a development partner, Thiess drove a lot of the requirements for ongoing improvements and there’s been constant collaboration throughout the project,” WesTrac Project Manager Joanne Henry said in a recent press release.

The solution is part of an ongoing program involving Thiess, Caterpillar and WesTrac to ultimately achieve full autonomy. 

The current solution involves a single operator working from a remote on-site operating center, issuing commands to the three drills simultaneously to instruct them to commence single-row autonomous drilling of a pre-defined pattern. Apart from instructing the rigs to move to the next row and begin drilling, all operations are carried out using Command for drilling.

The Cat dealer explained that a phased approach allowed Thiess to progressively upskill workers, verify the technology in stages and move smoothly toward the desired final outcome.

Drills operating autonomously

The project began with a single drill rig and a staged implementation of technology. Thiess then progressed from manual operation to a Command functionality that still required an operator in the cab, but this time a range of automated functions were introduced.

According to WesTrac, this approach allowed operators to build their understanding of the new functions before the next stage, when they were removed from the cab and located in the remote operator station.

After operating a single drill in autonomous mode, a second rig was equipped with Command. Once the operators were comfortable and proficient with two drills, a third was added. In July, the team further tested the system capabilities by locating a single remote operator at the WesTrac facility in Tomago. There, the operator successfully operated multiple autonomous rotary drills at the Thiess project in the Hunter Valley — more than 150 kilometers (93 miles) away.

According to Thiess, removing operators from the cab resulted in several benefits. Beyond reducing safety risks, the operator station environment reduced fatigue because operators could take short breaks and move around without impacting productivity.

“Thiess also realized a higher level of engagement because team members had the opportunity to upskill,” Henry said. “That has the potential not only to drive retention of existing staff, but to attract younger generations who see the appeal of working with world-leading technology.”


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