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Penguin develops robot to clear drawbell hangups

June 1, 2014
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Technology

Robotic solution to keep miners out of harm’s way

Left to right are Greg Baiden, CEO of Penguin Automated Systems Inc., Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk, and Greg Rickford, FedNor Minister and Member of Parliament for Kenora, posing for the FedNor funding announcement at the PDAC March 3rd. On March 20th, Rickford was appointed Minister of Natural Resources.

Sudbury-based Penguin Automated Systems Inc. has won a contract with Codelco, Chile’s state-owned copper miner, to develop a robotic solution for clearing hangups in block cave mines.

The hangups occur in drawbells, funnel-shaped cavities designed for ore collection.
“The material comes down through a funnel and goes through a throat,” explained Penguin CEO Greg Baiden. “If the material isn’t properly sized, you can get arches that hang up, not dissimilar to what happens in ore passes here in Sudbury, except that there are so many of these drawbells that it’s a constant problem and a huge safety issue.”

To dislodge the hangups, miners are currently “shoving bamboo poles up through the throat with explosives ducktaped to them,” and exposing themselves to hundreds of tonnes of rock that could give way without warning, said Baiden.

“It’s the kind of problem that has mine managers waking up every morning in a cold sweat thinking ‘We have to figure out a way to not have to do this anymore…’”

Aside from being a safety issue, hangups also impact on productivity because ore is not available for collection and haulage from a blocked drawbell. The robot being designed by Penguin will be a tracked or wheeled vehicle with camera, lighting and instruments that can be operated from a safe distance. The robot will be capable of non-contact measurement, information analysis, drilling and the loading of explosives for remote detonation.

A prototype is expected to be ready for shipment to Chile late this year, said Baiden, but the potential for many more units is considerable, given the growing number of block cave mines around the world and the importance of coming up with a way to clear blockages without exposing miners to unnecessary risks.

According to one estimate, there are some 200,000 drawbells in the world and at any one time, one in 10 is blocked, said Baiden.

Information about accidents or fatalities related to current blockage clearing practices has been difficult to access.

“We’ve had the damndest time finding any information regarding safety around this particular issue in any mine in the world,” said Baiden.

FedNor, the federal government’s regional economic development agency for Northern Ontario, is assisting the design and development of the Hangup Assessment and Removal Robotic System with a $1 million investment.

During the development stage of the project, Penguin Automated Systems will hire 30 engineers and technical workers. Longer term, the company expects to create up to 20 new manufacturing jobs in Sudbury.

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