Staring down lower profits from expensive underground extraction work, the Diavik Diamond Mine has turned to an unusual place to trim costs: the Xbox.
Diavik, which recently began extracting ore from a deep network of tunnels, is installing a complex robotic system that will allow its workers to remotely operate mine equipment. Using joysticks and computer monitors, an equipment operator can drive a scoop tram from the surface. Diavik believes the system will make its operation more efficient.
Developed by Swedish mining equipment giant Atlas Copco AB, the system comes with a computerized simulator, playable with an Xbox 360 controller, that workers can train with.
Diavik, which is 60 per cent owned by Rio Tinto PLC, is the first operation in that company's global network to use the automated underground technology, which is sophisticated enough to pilot equipment down pre-set routes without any human intervention. The mine is starting with three scoop rams, which are used to dig and dump blasted ore. It is also contemplating automating some of haul trucks, which often spend a full hour driving up a spiralling route from the bottom of the mine 600 metres below surface. Commands are relayed to the underground equipment via fibre optic lines and wireless networks.
Although hundreds of people will still be required below-ground at the mine, the robotic technology will remove some operators from dangerous situations. Diavik believes it will also save money. Robotic scoop trams don't have drivers who can get distracted and run into walls. Nor do they have heavy feet. That means less wear and tear.
Robots also don't get rattled on bumpy surfaces like human drivers do. As a result, the driverless trucks have run at twice the speed of piloted vehicles in some initial tests. The trucks only need human attention when they're picking up a load - they can transport it and dump it automatically.
The company is also planning to experiment with long-distance remote control. If the trucks can be run from the mine surface, they can also likely be run from Yellowknife - or perhaps elsewhere in North America. That could bring further labour cost savings.
"In today's environment, we have to do whatever we can to get the best value out of our operation," says David Janes, Diavik's communications and automation specialist. "That includes the financial side, plus the employee benefits side and safety - the whole package."