SMD’s Underwater Mining Tech Improves Environmental Viability

SMD is the technical lead on VAMOS, which enables access to high grade EU reserves of deeper seated minerals by providing a new Safe, Clean and Low Visibility Mining Technique.

UK-based subsea engineering specialist Soil Machine Dynamics Ltd (SMD) has successfully completed first stage testing in a pioneering project which is set to uncover valuable European mineral resources.

SMD is the technical lead on the VAMOS (Viable Alternative Mine Operating System) project, a 42-month international research and development venture, which is partly-funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

At a cost of approximately 12.6 million Euros, SMD and its partners in the VAMOS Consortium, have designed and built a robotic underwater mining prototype with launch and recovery technology to perform field tests at four EU mining sites.

Stef Kapusniak, Project Director at SMD, explains: “The performance of the system is based on proven remotely controlled underwater excavation techniques made possible by improvements in underwater positioning, navigation and awareness systems. It will provide a safer and cleaner option for extracting inland submerged mineral deposits. The technique is suitable for soft to medium strength rock in orebodies below the water table. We envisage application in the form of extensions to existing surface mines, re-opening of abandoned un-rehabilitated mines and direct application in previously unworked mineral deposits which are in hydrologically challenging ground. Testing at the first trial site in an abandoned Kaolin mine in Devon went very well. Testing at further sites in different rock types at different water depths will enable confirmation of the system’s potential for industrial scale applications. This is a very exciting time, as completion of testing will enable determination of the practical range of application in this emerging market.”

By 2015, one third of world oil production was from offshore sources. The same trend is emerging for harder minerals. Offshore resources are plentiful with high ore grades. In many cases these resources are unburied. The international seabed authority has put draft legislation in place for mining in international waters. In parallel, some governments have already put in place mining and environmental legislation for their exclusive economic areas.

Driven by the safety requirements of the mining industry and the environmental concerns of the general public regarding mining wastes and large tailings, VAMOS is developing a novel automated solution for exploration, extraction and pre-processing of ores found in inland flooded mines or in shallow sea waters, and will engage with all stakeholders to achieve environmental, economically and socially acceptable solutions to enable the exploitation of EU’s inland submerged mineral deposits.

Key research and innovation objectives of VAMOS include:

Develop a prototype underwater, remotely controlled, mining system with associated launch and recovery equipment and with the following sub-objectives;

  • Develop and demonstrate the applicability of a remotely operated mining machine for submerged inland applications;
  • Develop and test new cutting technology in real submerged inland mining conditions;
  • Develop and test innovative slurry transportation, floating winch technology, and novel launch/recovery/hose and cable layout systems;
  • Develop and test innovative slurry transportation, floating winch technology, and novel launch/recovery/hose and cable layout systems.

Evaluate the environmental performance, the economic feasibility, productivity and cost of operation:

  • Environmental impacts assessment;
  • Macro-economic feasibility;
  • Micro-economic feasibility.

To develop new, adapt and advance existing and finally integrate a set of technologies to overcome the limitations of currently available underwater sensing, spatial awareness, navigational and positioning technology in order to enable safe and reliable operation of the equipment in an enclosed and noisy mine environment – low visibility mining concept. In particular:

  • Develop underwater positioning technology to overcome current limitations of the use of acoustic underwater positioning systems;
  • Develop augmented reality representation of the mining environment to enable the required level of pilot awareness;
  • Develop a hybrid AUV/ROV technology to allow the perception of occluded mine areas and the observation and navigation of the mining machine, and the supervision of tool changing;
  • Develop a real-time grade control capability.

To provide an integrated solution for efficient real-time monitoring of environmental impacts.

To conduct field trials with the prototype equipment in abandoned and inactive mine sites with a range of rock types and at a range of submerged depths.

To maximize positive social and economic impacts and enable the market up-take of ¡VAMOS! solutions by defining and overcoming the practicalities of the concept, proving the operational feasibility and the economic viability of the proposed technique.

To contribute to social acceptance of the new extraction technique via public demonstrations in different EU regions, combined with public outreach and dissemination on new mining alternatives.

According to SMD, advantages of the tested prototype include:

  • No drawdown of aquifer(s) affecting neighbors;
  • No blasting noise, ground vibration, dust or fume nuisance;
  • No discharge of mine water;
  • Safer: No personnel in the mine;
  • Improved slope stability and reduction in stripping ratio;
  • No toe-seepage, weathering or erosion of side-walls;
  • No blast over-break or blast vibration;
  • Water pressure balanced across pit wall;
  • No dewatering costs and/or barrier construction/maintenance;
  • Cheaper capital cost and quicker set up;
  • Access to barrier pillars, buffer zones, etc.;
  • Infrastructure and mill life extended;
  • Chance to finalize rehabilitation on legacy problems.

SMD is a market leading global company with over 45 years’ experience in the subsea technology sector, specializing in the development of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and advanced trenching and mining machines.

Next, the system will be demobilized and prepared for transport from the UK to the second test site in Bosnia and Herzegovina in spring 2018.

The VAMOS project launched in March 2016. The consortium includes 16 members from nine EU countries.

Other members of the consortium are BMT Group Ltd, Damen Shipyards Group, Instituto de Engenharia Sistemas e Computadores, Fugro EMU Ltd, Zentrum für Telematik e.V., Montanuniversität Leoben, Minerália, Lda, Sandvik Mining and Construction G.m.b.H, Geological survey of Slovenia, La Palma Research Centre for Future Studies, European Federation of Geologists, Trelleborg Ede Bv, Federalni zavod za Geologijo and Fondacija za obnovu I razvoj regije Vareš.

SMD operates three strategic sites in the North East of England; a head office and heavy production facility at Davy Bank in Wallsend, a manufacturing site in North Shields and a new Services operational base at the Port of Tyne.

SMD is a subsidiary of Chinese parent company CRRC Group, the world’s largest provider of propulsion and power control systems. The company continues to expand its global network and is currently investing in a new sales and manufacturing facility in Shanghai.