Mining and Geological Engineering Professor Nathalie Risso’s Trip to Antofagasta Mine in Chile

March 26, 2024
Dr. Nathalie Risso and graduate student Matias Saavedra

Dr. Nathalie Risso and graduate student Matias Saavedra (3rd and 4th from L) at the remote operations center of Los Pelambres in Santiago, Chile

Mining and Geological Engineering professor Nathalie Risso, PhD, and Mining and Geological Engineering graduate student Matias Saavedra had the opportunity to spend a week in Chile this past summer to tour Antofagasta Mineral’s Los Pelambres and Centinela mines. The two were given a chance to learn about the advances the company has made in autonomy, management procedures and how workers are being trained. They also got to compare the cultural differences between Chilean and American views on mining and what different mines can learn from each other's procedures.

Dr. Risso said that the University of Arizona aided tremendously in helping her accomplish this trip, adding that the willingness the university has to aid in collaborations between the school and mining companies is something unique.

“That is something that you don't have with other universities,” Dr. Risso said. “And that is in a way enabled by the structure that you have at the university by the support of the School of Mining, the College of Engineering, and of my own department.”

Matias Saavedra, the student that joined Dr. Risso on the trip, wanted to try to apply his education in autonomous engineering during the experience to Chile. He said that he didn’t realize the complexities involved with the industry’s success in his home country and enjoyed learning about how organized Antofagasta Minerals approach to autonomy is.

student Matias Saavedra with an autonomous driller

Mining and Geological Engineering graduate student Matias Saavedra with an autonomous driller

“I was expecting something more disorganized, with people running everywhere and trying to solve problems,” Saavedra said. “But to my surprise, it was really different. Everything was very organized and it's a really good work environment.”

Chile was the first country to implement autonomous haul trucks in 2004. The country’s advanced autonomous technology was one of the main reasons for the trip. Dr. Risso said that the primary goal was to learn more about the autonomous technologies as it is the direction US mines are beginning to move toward.

“Now that same operator who was working in the dust and wearing a mask in the mine can work in a comfortable office, have some coffee, and do exactly the same job,” Dr. Risso said.

Antofagasta Minerals operations have begun using autonomous drills and haul trucks, meaning that the person in control has moved from working at the mine site with the machine to operating from a control room. “You have to add a lot of sensors that are going to give the operator in the remote control room the same feedback that they would get if they were at the mine,” Dr. Risso explained.

Previously, the operators in the mine could feel the equipment’s movement and tell what was going on based on a physical reaction. Now that they have been moved to a control room the operators lack that awareness and have to learn a completely new system.

Dr. Nathalie Risso looking at screens from  mining operations

Dr. Nathalie Risso takes a tour of the remote mining operations during her visit to Chile, summer 2023

“They need to learn to interpret the numbers that they see on the computer screen, which is the visualization challenge,” Dr. Risso said. She explained that even with the new challenge, workers said that they were excited about the advancements. “We had a chance to interview some of the operators and they said that this is a really positive experience for them, particularly in terms of their safety and health.”

In addition to learning about the mine’s advanced technology, Dr. Risso and Saavedra also reviewed the more domestic and casual environment in the mines. Dr. Risso said that every mine required a discussion or training on safety, and that when safety procedures were being discussed it was almost like they were talking about a family member.

“At the beginning of the safety meetings they recognized the operators that did really well in enforcing safety and doing things like checking that the proper conditions were there for the workers to operate in,” she said. “And they show videos of the families at the beginning of the meeting, like 'happy birthday,' ‘we want to see you back,’ ‘take care of yourself’, ‘take care of your partners’. You feel like you're part of a family.”

Dr. Risso said that she hopes that the collaboration with Antofagasta Minerals can serve as a way to create mutually beneficial relationships between Chile’s and Arizona’s mining sectors. “I see a huge opportunity, and I'm happy to bring in my connections as a Chilean into the University of Arizona to have people talking about this,” she said. “Arizona mining companies like Freeport-McMoran are interested in their environmental impact, health and safety and making a positive impact in local communities. Automation and autonomy can help in many of these areas.”

Matias Saavedra added that he looks forward to seeing US mines developing similar technologies as the ones used in Chile, and hopes that more opportunities for improvements are made.

An autonomous driller at Los Pelambres mine in Northern Chile

An autonomous driller at Los Pelambres mine in Northern Chile

“The mining companies in Chile already apply autonomous systems and remote controls. They are already operational,” Saavedra said. “I think here in the United States, there's a lot of opportunities to improve the process and take an example from other mining countries.”

Dr. Risso said that she would like to see future class trips to Chile and other mining countries, as well as visits from foreign mine representatives to discuss the differences in technology and give students a broader perspective on what other advancements are taking place. “They were very welcoming and we have a lot of support from the university,” she said. “I see a lot of room for collaboration for people who work in this department.”