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Miljø, AF Gruppen

The robot that can save lives

LKAB (Luossavaara Kiirunavaara Aktie Bolag) is one of Sweden's oldest industrial companies. The company mines and processes iron ore in Kiruna and Malmberget, and since 1902 has transported over a billion tonnes of iron ore across the border to the discharging plant in Narvik.

“LKAB’s plant in Narvik is a hub for sea transport, and has capacity for almost 20 million tonnes of iron ore per year. If parts of the plant stop up, this could have major financial consequences for the group. This was a challenge that both LKAB and AF Decom wanted to address," says Jarle Bøckman, Project Manager at AF Decom.

Risk of landslides

The SILA plant in Narvik consists of 12 enormous rock and concrete silos operated with advanced automatic control, and the specially designed ore wagons can be unloaded in just 5 seconds. This means that a 68-carriage ore train can be unloaded in just under 6 minutes. Under the silos there are a total of 2.8 kilometres of tunnels that, among other things, house conveyor belts for the ore pellets. From the port of Narvik, iron ore is then shipped out to countries all over the world.
The plant is in continuous operation throughout the year, and since its inception has handled hundreds of millions of tonnes of iron ore pellets. This, of course, results in wear and tear on shafts, silos, cliffs and conveyor belts. Maintenance is usually carried out according to carefully planned maintenance stops performed by operations and mechanics personnel. The exception is the complex silo structures where access and landslide risk pose too great a risk to the personnel.
“We started one project to find out how we could carry out safety work in a number of steel shafts that LKAB has had challenges with," says Andreas Framnes, Project Manager for LKAB.

The shafts are located in the rock between a bottom tunnel and mountain silo 66 metres below ground level. LKAB wanted to find a way to operate the conveyor belt under the shafts while the project was underway, while ensuring that the work should not be a hindrance to the 8,000-tonne ore trains that operate and unload at the railway terminal.

"We wanted to find solutions in the project that could eliminate the risk factors we had made a survey of initially, while at the same time complying with the need to not affect ordinary operations at the plant. At a project group meeting, we discussed how the aquaculture and subsea industry solves challenges under water using remotely operated ROVs and we started looking for a contractor who might be interested in adapting this type of technology for use at LKAB's plant," says Framnes.

AF Decom and its subcontractor Evirex understood the problem. After a workshop in Narvik, the concept of a remotely-controlled robot that could carry out work in the risky areas was launched.

"We saw from the very beginning that this has many benefits. This is a good safety measure that can actually save human lives where there is a high risk of landslides. In addition, it can carry out repairs while the plant is in operation, thus saving both time and money," explains Bøckman.

Looking at more possibilities

“The assignment we were given by AF Decom was relatively exciting; you have to hang in between a railway track, lower ourselves down 60 metres, be suspended in mid-air in a pitch-dark room and carve out some of the world's hardest materials. All this in an atmosphere that breaks most machines in hours and all while northern Europe's heaviest locomotive continuously drives over us. Through an interdisciplinary and integrated team across organisations, with different kinds of expertise, a ready-made solution was developed in just eight weeks. The equipment was fully developed and the project completed on time and budget. We are incredibly proud to be with AF Decom in such projects and realise that our integrated collaboration enables solutions that are at the forefront of what is technologically feasible," says Kjetil Njærheim, Chairman of the Board of Envirex.

Today, Decom X has only been tested at  LKAB's facility, but in the long term AF Decom and Envirex will look at other uses for the robot.

"There is a lot of work that has to be done in both silos and mines with narrow access and landslide risk, and here Decom X may have the potential to solve the safety challenges," says Bøckman.