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Caterpillar (Cat), Thiess, and WesTrac recently hit one million autonomous miles drilled at a BHP mine. Australian Mining investigates how they pulled it off.

The journey toward autonomous drilling at the mine didn’t happen overnight.

A multistep evolution toward automation saw the three companies implementing a building block approach beginning with the Cat MD6250 drill.

“The phased approach progressed through three stages of drill automation,” WesTrac technology and solutions manager Nakia Brewer said.

Thiess, WesTrac, Caterpillar team. Image: Westrac

“Operator machine assist (OMA), semi-autonomous drilling, and full autonomous drilling with collision avoidance.”

Cat’s onboard ‘Drill Assist’ automated functionality, followed by MineStar Solutions’ MineStar Terrain which provides precision guidance to help complete patterns accurately and productively.

The next step for Thiess was to remove the operator from the cab. Command for drilling offers two levels of autonomous drilling for multiple drills – line-of-sight (LOS) and non-line-of-sight (NLOS).

Thiess opted for the NLOS autonomous drilling system using a remote operating station to position the operator away from the drilling site.

Today, three fully autonomous drills are managed by a single operator sitting in a remote operating station using Cat MineStar Command for drilling.

The journey required close collaboration between Thiess, WesTrac and Cat, not only to implement technology but also to develop processes specific to autonomous operations, work through change management and develop new training programs for site personnel.

Thiess autonomy superintendent Aaron Skinner. Image: Westrac

“Thiess’ commitment to this project and openness for deep collaboration has been a driving force behind its success,” Cat MineStar Solutions technology and global sales support vice president and general manager Sean McGinnis said.

“We worked closely with Thiess and WesTrac to ensure our autonomous solution would meet their key performance indicator goals along the way.”

Since autonomous operations began, reports have shown a 20 per cent improvement in drilling performance, zero re-drilled holes, improved site safety outcomes, and drill utilisation more than 23 hours a day.

“The impressive results achieved with Thiess can be replicated with other miners to improve their operations with drilling autonomy,” McGinnis said.

“We look to continue collaborating with Thiess and WesTrac and look forward to the millions of meters to come.”