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After a successful trial at the Iron Bridge mine, Epiroc and Fortescue are set to bring the autonomous SmartROC D65 MKII to Fortescue’s Solomon Hub.

Epiroc and Fortescue first formed an automation partnership in 2021, which involved Epiroc trialling the autonomous SmartROC D65 MKII at Fortescue’s Iron Bridge mine in Western Australia for at least 12 months.

The trial commenced in 2022, and the rig hit production key performance indicators in May 2023.

In 2023, Epiroc said the surface drill rig demonstrated outstanding results during the testing phase, including increased productive utilisation – in autonomous mode, the drill rig has zero idling time during transitions between tramming, positioning and drilling – which provided consistent efficiency in every hole cycle and reduces the total time spent to complete a drill pattern.

“Throughout testing, the autonomous SmartROC D65 MKII rig consistently achieved hole accuracy targets set beyond what was achievable with manual operations,” Epiroc surface division automation manager Christopher Blignaut said.

Since then, the autonomous SmartROC D65 has drilled up to 30 metres at an angle at Iron Bridge, demonstrating more preciseness in drilling predictions, more ease for unintended deviations in holes, and making drill plan adjustments easier.

The SmartROC D65 MKII rig’s autonomous algorithms also employs components such as cylinders, feed chains, rotation heads, and rock drilling tools to ensure a higher life cycle.

With the autonomous SmartROC D65 MKII rig’s success at Iron Bridge, Epiroc and Fortescue are preparing to carry out autonomous contour mining at Fortescue’s Solomon Hub, which comprises the Firetail, Kings Valley and Queens Valley iron ore mines.

“There’s a lot of knowledge about path planning and obstacle detection but not about tramming for contour operations,” Epiroc automation specialist Howlett said.

“Those are wicked challenges. We’re looking forward to giving it a crack.”

To prepare for the Solomon Hub operations, Fortescue has started advertising jobs for autonomous operators.

“We have the opportunity to put people in a safer working environment, and help them be more productive and efficient,” Epiroc Australia general manager and managing director Wayne Sterley said.

“By taking on this digital transformation, we’ll attract more talent into the industry.”