Evolving into a modern, professional industry

The drilling sector is a far cry from what it used to be.

Speaking to National Mining Chronicle on the back of presenting an AusIMM Managing Your Drilling Campaign masterclass, Colin Roberts has witnessed the transformation of the industry first-hand.

Professor Roberts has spent much of his career since 1973 involved in drilling operations for minerals, water and petroleum, employing techniques including diamond coring, rotary mud and air-percussion (conventional and reverse circulation), in addition to supervising and managing large domestic and multinational operations.

Professor Roberts said while the fundamentals of the sector had always remained the same, technologies and attitudes of contractors and drilling personnel had also evolved.

“They were once considered to be the cowboys of the industry, and in many ways they were,” he said.

“Now the drillers are professionals in charge of multi-million-dollar equipment spreads, using high-tech engineering to achieve the end product.

“Since the 1990s, technology has advanced hugely.

“The fundamentals remain the same, but electronics, modern hydraulics and hands-free safety systems have brought the white coat mentality into the industry.”

According to the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, mineral exploration in remote Western Australian locations presents additional risk factors not found in other environments. From the preparation of camps, worksites and drill pads, to operating drill rigs, myriad hazards can present themselves.

In fact, WA’s code of practice for mineral exploration drilling – covering major hazard categories including rotating and moving parts, hydraulic systems, electricity, hot work, natural gases, dust and noise and more – was created to encourage operators to develop site-specific solutions to these very issues.

Professor Roberts said maintaining high standards and creating a modern, safe and efficient drilling context was all about selecting the right contractor for the job.

“In relation to exploration, drilling is one of the most expensive components of data collection in an entire campaign,” he said. “In relation to mining, drilling is one of the four fundamental components – drilling, blasting, loading and haulage. Therefore, when entrusting such responsibilities to a contractor, it is essential the client collaborates with the contractor and effectively manages the campaign.

“This includes proven competence as a contractor, proven competent personnel, a proven safety record, procedures and culture, environmental culture, the necessary equipment to complete the program efficiently, economically and without breakdown, the financial capacity to overcome any unforeseen requirements for expansion and the ability to rectify errors and catastrophic events, whether voluntary or through the courts.”

When considering costs, several questions must be asked, according to Professor Roberts.

“Where is the project? From a desert, to mountains, an offshore location or in the Arctic or tropics, each has its own cost implications,” he said.

“How do we get there? Can we service the project from home base or build onsite facilities? How deep are the holes? What is their diameter? What is the quantity of holes? What purpose does the hole serve?”

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