Drill Costs

Drilling Technology: Making a Key Mining Job Safer, More Efficient and More Accurate 


When it comes to rotary mining drills, Paul Dietz knows what he’s talking about. As Chief Engineer for Caterpillar Global Mining, he has been instrumental in updating the Cat® rotary drill lineup with new features, new models and new technologies. He recently sat down to answer some questions about the latest in Cat drilling technologies.

What’s the first thing people should know about Cat® drilling technologies?

For starters, I’d say that Caterpillar is ahead of the game on a lot of fronts. We’re on point with advancements in semi-autonomous and autonomous systems. And if you’re not ready to step into the world of autonomy, we offer outstanding precision guidance and operator assist functions, along with the best mechanical pipe handling capabilities in the industry.

Let’s start at the mechanical level. What does the Cat rod changer have going for it?

Let’s look at the Cat MD6420 as an example. It has a heavy-duty, four or five-pod carousel pipe rack that can easily handle 35 ft. shoulder-to-shoulder, 7” OD drill pipe. It’s a live tower arrangement, so it can be operated with a full pipe rack and a full drill string hanging from the head. You can raise and lower the mast with no trouble at any time.

We build the carousel to be very robust and operator friendly. It uses slap geometry for making and breaking pipe joints, and it has a hydraulically operated breakout wrench, which is sometimes abbreviated as HOBO.

The HOBO is great because it keeps operators from wasting time—sometimes hours during a shift—trying to break an overly tight connection. All they have to do is stop for a few minutes, apply the wrench, break the joint apart, pull it out of the way and go back to normal operations. It’s a real time saver and production booster.

Moving on to non-mechanical technologies, what is there in the Cat technology arsenal to help drillers work more effectively?

Cat technologies for drilling start with three Auto Drill Assist functions—Auto Level, Auto Mast and Auto Drill. They’re all built into the latest Cat drills.

As the names suggest, they automate three primary drill processes: leveling for a safe, solid footing on uneven ground; mast positioning, which raises the mast and locks it at the proper angle; and the drilling cycle. Auto Drill maintains optimum bit speeds and pressures, so you get a quality hole that stands up until it can be loaded with explosives.

What are the primary benefits of the Auto Drill Assist Functions?

Most importantly, they reduce process variation from hole to hole and from operator to operator. You get a quality hole every time that doesn’t cave in, so you avoid a lot of rework.

Plus, they optimize bit life, consumables usage and drill component wear by keeping the drill within optimum operating parameters at all times. If you’re having trouble finding good drillers, these automated functions make new or inexperienced operators productive right away.

What about hole location and guidance technologies?

That’s where Cat Terrain for drilling comes in. Cat Terrain adds sophisticated satellite guidance capabilities that precisely locate holes based on digital drill plans. It gives you up to four times greater pattern accuracy than manual surveying, which maximizes the effectiveness of every shot.

The other thing that Terrain does is adjust collar heights for uniform hole depth. Think about it. If you’re working on an uneven surface and you drill, say, a 75 meter hole every time, you’re going to reproduce those surface variations on the resulting bench. By compensating for those variations, Terrain gives you smooth, flat benches that are easier to work on and save wear and tear on loading tools, trucks and clean up equipment.

What other benefits can miners expect from Cat Terrain?

The use of digital drill plans pretty much eliminates the need to physically survey and mark hole locations. And Terrain records and reports strata variations to produce a more accurate blastability index. That also helps with future mine planning.

On the safety front, Terrain provides the ability to set up avoidance zones to keep machines away from hazardous areas. Plus, it warns operators if they try to propel the drill with pipe in the hole. That’s valuable because accidents like that cost about $75,000 per incident.

Is Cat Terrain available for mixed-fleet use?

Absolutely. It’s retrofittable to any rotary drill – Cat or competitive. You just need to have sufficient wireless capabilities to handle the data transfer between the machines and your office.

It’s actually fairly straightforward to set up and use but it can make a big impact on your bottom line from day one. It’s also a prerequisite if you’re going to step into one of our semi-autonomous or autonomous drilling systems.

Let’s talk about autonomy. Where is Caterpillar heading with autonomous drilling technology?

We have them ready to go. In 2017, we’ll introduce Semi-Autonomous Single-Row Drilling. With this system, the operator sets up the drill on the first hole, hits go, and the machine takes over the drilling cycle. When the first hole is done, it autonomously trams to the next hole location and starts the drilling cycle again, repeating until the row is complete.

It’s a good way to stretch your manpower because one operator can manage up to three machines at once. Working from a trailer-mounted operator station located on the bench, the operator starts a row and can then move on to another machine. He or she only needs to take control when the system runs into difficult conditions, like a mud pocket or super- hard strata. At that point, the machine will notify the operator that it needs help.

If you don’t want to invest in a trailer, another option is to trigger the row cycle from a tablet device. Operators can work from a pickup truck and the machines will call them for assistance when needed. It’s a great option for smaller operations and tight operating budgets.

And if you would feel more comfortable leaving the operator in the cab, we offer semi-autonomous single-hole capabilities. The operator triggers each drilling cycle and then triggers automated tramming to the next hole, but stays on board to monitor the entire process.

When will we see fully autonomous drilling systems?

Caterpillar is planning to introduce whole-pattern autonomous drilling in 2018. As you’d expect, it will automate drill cycles and tramming for the entire drill pattern. Better still, it will enable one operator to manage drill operations across the mine site from a fixed Remote Operator Station, located on site or at an off-site command center. What you will probably never see—from Caterpillar or anyone else—is the ability to autonomously move drills from one bench to another. That capability would simply be too expensive. Full-pattern autonomy maximizes useful functionality while keeping system costs in line.

Why is the industry moving toward autonomous drilling?

It comes down to three things: safety, cost and accuracy.

First and foremost, the fewer people you can have out on the site, the safer your site will be. Cat Terrain and Command move operators off of their machines and let them work from safer locations. They prevent accidents, as well, such as drilling into unblasted holes.

Next, autonomy saves labor costs by letting one operator manage multiple machines. You get better machine utilization, too, because you can recover a lot of the time lost to breaks and shift changes.

The biggest cost driver, though, is improved accuracy. Tighter drill pattern execution and better, more consistent hole quality leads to more effective blasting and better fragmentation. In turn, that results in improved loading and hauling efficiencies. Even your crusher efficiency is improved at the end of the line.

In the final analysis, these kinds of drilling technologies have the potential to save millions every year in operating costs, while boosting bottom-line results. The industry is moving toward them because it can’t afford not to.

Thank you for the insights.

You’re very welcome. Everyone stay safe out there!