An autonomous mining roadmap for De Beers’ Venetia Underground

De Beers has devised an autonomous mining roadmap for its Venetia Underground Mine (VUG) that will – once fully implemented – result in the new $2 billion mine becoming one of the most mechanised and automated mining operations in the world.  

The VUG replaces open pit operations at the Venetia Diamond Mine and extends mine life to at least 2046. Expected to start production within 2023, it will use the sub-level cave mining method. According to Giel Marais, Principal Automation & Information at De Beers, the objective in terms of automation at the Venetia Underground Mine (VUG) is to have a number of autonomous mining systems performing multiple mining processes by 2027. 

“This is an ambitious goal but we believe achievable given the major technological advances made in recent years, particularly by the Original Equipment Manufacturers who produce underground mining machines,” he says. “In the case of the VUG, our primary technology partner is Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, which manufactures a full range of ‘intelligent’ mining machines that can operate independently underground within access controlled safety zones or be remotely operated from control rooms on surface.”

Marais’ colleague, Freddie Breed, Underground Technical Services Manager at De Beers, points out that the group has previous experience of autonomous mining. “De Beers commissioned the first – and only – automated trucking loop in South Africa, and one of the first worldwide, at the Finsch diamond mine in the Northern Cape in 2005,” he says.

Marais says that while the Finsch system was revolutionary it was also limited in some respects. “The system was limited to one machine type – articulated dump trucks (ADTs) – performing one process, namely hauling, on a single level of the mine,” he explains. “By contrast, at the VUG we will eventually have a number of mining systems operational, with a variety of machines, not just ADTs, executing multiple mining processes within the same operational area. These systems will be deployed and operating simultaneously during a shift on different levels of the mine.” 

The implementation of automation at the VUG will be carefully phased in on an incremental basis starting with automated machines (which still require an onboard operator although many functions are automated). Next to be introduced will be autonomous machines (which do not require an onboard operator as they are equipped with automated machine navigation and tramming and can perform – while stationary in one location – most sets of routine functions without operator input required during the cycle). The final phase of implementation will see the introduction of full autonomous mining systems. 

The key characteristic of autonomous mining systems is the use of multiple autonomous machines which are managed by an integrated central traffic management system. The machines operate in predefined safety zones that are dynamically combined to create autonomous operating areas. 

Autonomous mining not only creates a safer and healthier environment for workers (by removing them from potential high risk areas of the mine) but, if implemented correctly, is also more productive than traditional techniques when measured in terms of output against available operating time.  

Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions is supplying all the primary mining equipment for the VUG for both mine development and production. This includes machines for development and production drilling, rock reinforcement, and loading and hauling. Sandvik is also providing its AutoMine® system for the remote operation of loaders and trucks and its OptiMine® system for machine health monitoring, task management and location tracking.  

As one of the first steps in its automation journey, the VUG is about to commission a pilot project which will prepare the production team for the use of remote loading at the drawpoints and autonomous tramming to the tip. With cave mining, there is a risk of mud-rushes and water ingress at drawpoints and remote loading will allow material to be loaded without putting operators at risk. 

“This pilot project will have a single loader operating under AutoMine® Lite in a dedicated area on 44 Level that is isolated from other areas of the mine,” says Breed. “The machine will be controlled locally from a mobile tele-remote station just outside the autonomous operating area and not from surface.” 

He adds that an integrated operations centre on surface at Venetia Mine is under construction and that it will be equipped and commissioned in H1-2023.

Facilitating VUG autonomy with Kinetic Mesh wireless mesh connectivity

In a separate but related announcement, Rajant Corporation, the pioneer of Kinetic Mesh® wireless networks, says it has collaborated with Sandvik on digital mining tests to ensure that wireless communication can be used with tele-remote and autonomous vehicles destined for Venetia.

Venetia is South Africa’s largest diamond mine. It has been mined as an open-pit since 1992, with a Rajant Kinetic Mesh network providing resilient connectivity for surface vehicles. The Venetia Underground Project will rely upon autonomous and remotely operated vehicles to mine the diamond-bearing rock efficiently and safely, adopting new techniques for precise sub-level caving extraction.

“Our collaboration with Rajant demonstrates real cooperation in adopting best-in-class technology to enable our customers to mine safer and more efficiently. Allied with Sandvik’s world-leading mining machines, the Rajant Kinetic Mesh wireless connectivity allows full utilisation of our advanced systems,” says Elen Toodu, Director of Global Automation Product Line & Projects, Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.

“Testing and validating with Sandvik demonstrated the ability to maintain the network connections required, not only to ensure safe operations but to be able to stream live video from the machines as they operate autonomously,” says Jouni Koppanen, Product Line Manager, Underground Automation, Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.

The Sandvik intelligent loaders and trucks feature smart solutions that rely on ubiquitous network connectivity within the challenging underground environment. Rajant’s network nodes, called BreadCrumbs® are mounted in fixed points within the mine and on every vehicle to directly connect to the vehicle’s cameras and control safety systems. This ensures that the controlling systems have 100% connection to the onboard systems.

“All Rajant BreadCrumbs communicate with all other radios, creating a unique, high-capacity, dense mesh network of connected assets, operating the advanced software systems at the heart of modern mining,” shares Chris Mason, Rajant VP of Sales, EMEA. “Rajant continuously develops its network offerings by working closely with machine and system manufacturers and the end-customer, enhancing the hardware and software systems that deliver mission-critical connectivity. Working with Sandvik on this task was a true illustration of collaboration across organisations and continents.”

Adds Mason, “Rajant’s extensive mining heritage in over 270 mines globally has led to the development of the latest Peregrine BreadCrumbs used for validation. This not only proved the resilience of connectivity and ruggedisation to survive in the mining environments but provided extremely high throughput and ultra-low latency required for multiple application use.”

Rajant technology is deployed across many mines globally, offering future-proof wireless connectivity. Each time Rajant launches a new BreadCrumb with added functionality, such as increased throughput, additional radio frequencies, or advanced management and control software, each new version is backward compatible with earlier models. This offers a clear path to continual improvement and network upgrade – critical when operations extend well into the future, like Venetia.