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Mining contractor trialling first 'green drill rig' in Australia

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Watpac is trialling the first Atlas Copco SmartROC T45 surface drill rigs in Australia.

The mining manager of Watpac Civil & Mining in Western Australia, Brendan Vaughn believes a comprehensive understanding and experience of the capabilities of certain plant and equipment, and certainly its real life-cycle cost potential,is crucial to the company’s ability to carve a deeper niche for itself in the market.

Watpac has contracts with BC Iron, Ramelius Resources, Iluka Resources and Pluton Resources in Western Australia, with a focus on operating leaner and more sustainable mining and secondary processing operations. 

With the exception of one or two smaller jobs, the mining business is focused on open pit mining projects with mid-range annual material movement rates. 

"Our focus is on trying to be the best with certain pieces of equipment within our business model. We want to be the best in Australia at operating equipment in that 100-tonne to 200t size range, be it an excavator, a drill or a truck. And that means understanding the life-cycle cost of that equipment better than anyone else," he explained.

Vaughan says Watpac’s expansion of its fleet of Atlas Copco F9C top-hammer ‘SmartRig’ blast-hole drills was based on the manufacturer’s equipment, support (including its factory-direct model) and technology.

The companies has to be able to work together closely on application of the technology. Just because it works in the north of Sweden doesn’t mean it can be started up at Mt Magnet in the middle of Western Australia, in the middle of summer, without the full attention of relevant technicians and experts.

“I think my job as a responsible engineer and an officer of Watpac is to make sure we have a strategy that is fully supported from the manufacturer through to what we’re doing for our clients, across multiple commodities, remote sites, nationally,” Vaughan stated.

"That’s an undertaking that requires us to be committed [and] to look for like-minded suppliers of equipment. We want to be innovative and we want to work with people who are innovative; that’s important to us. It’snot innovation just for the sake of innovation, it’s innovation that works. The smart drill has been an incredible piece of technology to put out there to our clients."

Now the ‘smart’ technology in the SmartRig exists in a new machine Vaughan thinks could be the best drill rig in its class.

Watpac has been putting the only SmartROC T45 in Australia (and only the second working anywhere in the world) through its paces at Ramelius Resources' Mt Magnet gold mine in WA’s Murchison district. Three months has shown it uses considerably less fuel than its predecessor, the F9C. 

But it’s not the significant monthly fuel bill savings that have Vaughan most excited by the performance of the T45 to date.

"The T45 is better than an F9C, and the reason why comes back to a discussion not about fuel, but about engines," he said.

"It’s about litres burnt through the engine.

"That’s highly significant because if savings of 30% on fuel burn are there – and we are seeing better than this – it means that the engine is wearing out less quickly, and that has tremendous impacts on your lifecycle maintenance strategy for running the drill.

"There is always a big focus on engine life with these track-mounted machines. There is a direct correlation between fuel reduction and frame life, and that’s a much bigger saving.

"The fuel saving is just the tip of the iceberg."

Vaughan said the promise of maintenance cost savings related to the simplified hose and fitting layout of the T45 was likely to become evident after 7000 hours or so of operation – down the track somewhat – and higher drill penetration rates with the extra 5kW of rock drill power (now 30kW)were also bound to be seen once some early rod-changing challenges were overcome.

"We put it [T45] in the hardest rocks … basalts and dolerites, and banded iron formations … which are essentially the three types of drilling applications faced at Mt Magnet," Vaughan says.

"So it’s not the granite and gneisses they test these rigs on in Sweden,but basalts and dolerites aren’t for the faint of heart, and BIFs tend to be dense and a little bit abrasive too. It’s a good test application for the technology.

"We’ve seen the penetration rates hit the same pen rates as the F9C, which of course is not good enough, but the reason is not the rock drill … we are trying to sort out issues with rod changing, and we’re pretty keen to see what the pen-rate benefits of sorting that out will be. When we sort those things out we’ll be able to assess the pen-rate advantages of the rock drill."

Vaughans aid the benefits of the technology onboard the new generation drills –including Atlas Copco’s computerised Rig Control System (RCS), and satellite-based hole navigation system (HNS) – had been demonstrated with the F9Cs and were an integral part of the contractor’s productivity push going forward. Precision drilling in pits atop old underground workings, and in an environment in which ore grades and tonnes moved are absolutely pivotal factors in mine economics equations, is a potential game changer.

Atlas Copco’s HNS uses data from mine planning software to accurately guide and control set-up without operator intervention – while gathering streams of information such as hole depths,metres, and penetration rates during drilling.

In full stride the ‘autonomous’ drill doesn’t require manual pit mark-ups and could ultimately be operated from outside the pit.

"One of the happiest groups of people at Mt Magnet are the surveyors," Vaughan said. 

"They don’t have to go out and put a hole in the ground anymore. They can be off doing other things rather than setting up the drill and blast pattern.And our blast crews don’t have to mark the ground either.

"When I hear at our sites that ‘we need to have our ground stations set up to be able to run our smart drill’ it’s music to my ears because it means the technology is being used and we are getting the advantages from it.

"It’s interesting where this technology is taking the industry.

“I visited a mine in the north of Sweden and was told by a grizzled old supervisor working at one of Europe’s biggest mines – he wasn’t an Atlas Copco employee – that the most experienced drillers on an L8, for instance, which is not a smart drill, would blow away a person off the street trying to drill a hole. But if you got someone off the street and put them in a smart drill you will get 95% of the performance of the experienced operator once the drill is in position. So that’s the extent of the impact of the computerisation and the technology.

"It’s made drilling possible for people who are less skilled.

"So you add in the more powerful rock drills, and the improved life-cycle cost, and the other benefits and add all those savings up and that’s what we’ll be able to pass directly back onto our clients.

"We will use innovation to get our costs down."

Vaughan said Atlas Copco’s support for the drills had been first-class.

"I haven’t heard of any occasion where they haven’t been there ready to respond to our needs, and that’s very important,” he said.

Commenting on the question of a possible end point for the current T45 ‘trial’, Vaughan stated: "I don’t think they’re going to get their drill rig back,".

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