Titeline Drilling Underground: Robotics and automation are the future

November 6, 2019

by Bill Ricciardi, CEO at Titeline Drilling Pty

Titeline Drilling (‘Titeline’) has been operating from its base in Ballarat Victoria for over 17 years, and continues to grow, steadily meeting the demands of a diverse customer base. The company specializes in surface and underground diamond drilling, with the surface business focusing on deep directional drilling while the underground business, Titeline Drilling Underground, has been developing a robotics solution for a hands-free drill rig and rod carrier system.


From the Gawler Craton of South Australia, where Titeline executed drill-outs of major deposits, including Prominent Hill, Carrapateena and Hillside, to today’s exploration hotspots, such as Ecuador in South America, the company’s unwavering commitment to safety, productivity and innovation has stood the test of time across variously demanding locations around the world.

Titeline has executed operations in Southern Africa and Papua New Guinea and has been involved in Coal Bed Methane surface-to-inseam drilling in Queensland through its subsidiary Titeline Energy Pty Ltd, and currently has ongoing operations in Mongolia and Ecuador. Primarily, the business operates in Australia, in Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland. Occasional ventures to Western Australia are required by its customers, as is the case with Rio Tinto Exploration which Titeline is currently drilling for on the exciting Winu project in Paterson Province.

A Titeline drill site in South Australia

Our people

From a purpose-built workshop and offices in Ballarat, western Victoria, Titeline’s dedicated management team is led by the owners of the business, CEO Bill Ricciardi, General Manager Jeff Donaldson and General Manager Overseas Operations Stephen Gavin. This core leadership group boasts over 100 years of combined, varied and continuous experience in the drilling industry and is always looking to learn and continue to improve the business, as well as its outcomes for over 300 employees worldwide. The safety of its people has been at the forefront of everything the company does. As well as building robust safety systems and an Integrated Management System that all meet ISO standards and cover every aspect of the company’s operations, Titeline continuously searches for practical solutions that remove hazards from the work place.

New operations underground

One exciting recent development is the company’s move into the underground diamond-drilling market. Titeline made the decision to diversify the business with the appointment of a dedicated Underground Manager, Greg Wythes; Greg joined the company in 2015 after leading several major underground projects, including Rio North Parkes and block cave conditioning at Newcrest Cadia.

With the support of existing customer Mining Metals Group at their Rosebery base metals mine on the West Coast of Tasmania, Titeline Drilling Underground won a 40-month contract to drill 80 000 m (262 467.19 ft) per annum of resource definition drilling. In a short time-frame Titeline Drilling Underground commissioned the design of a unique mobile drilling machine based on field-proven Boart Longyear components. With the ability to move and set up quickly, drill from +90 to -90 degrees and to depths of 1500 m (4921.26 ft), these machines have performed beyond expectation, allowing Titeline to exceed their customers’ production key performance indicators in the second full month of operations, without incident. Subsequent to this ramping up of activity, Titeline Underground secured its second contract with Newmont Tanami Operations in the Northern Territory, a combined grade control and resource definition contract requiring over 100 km to be drilled per annum.

The onboarding of nearly 100 new employees has been a challenge, but they have embraced the Titeline culture and settled in very well under the leadership of Greg and his team. In addition to its own  people, Titeline recognizes the support of Mining Metals Group Rosebery. It has truly been a team effort to achieve such a smooth transition.

Diamond drilling in Western Australia

Creating an automated drill

The transition to automated drill-rod handling is the next development phase of the Titeline-designed underground diamond drill and is now underway. This has been a natural progression for Titeline, having previously worked with EDM to develop the patent-pending EDM rod-feeder system for handling drill pipe on Titeline’s surface drills. (See the system in action on YouTube at the link below.) Titeline currently utilizes EDM rod feeders on its entire fleet of surface drills in Australia and is considered part of Titeline’s drill standard.

Developing automated rod handling in the underground environment posed unique challenges for our team, including:

1. The harsh environment: the underground environment is renowned for taking its toll on every form of equipment. The water, the air, and the mud together necessitate a high-maintenance schedule for the plant and equipment. Anything we introduce to this environment needs to be robust.

2. Numerous variables when setting up an underground drill: underground diamond drills by design are made to drill 360 degrees on azimuth and from -90 degrees to + 90 degrees in dip. No setup is ever the same. The design needs to be infinitely flexible.

3. Small footprint: underground mines are small spaces by default and anything working in them needs to be designed around the mining profile. A 5.5 m (18.04 ft) high by 5.5 m side profile is the most common kind in hard rock applications, so keeping the drill as small as is practical is critical to its success.

4. All the normal processes that go hand in hand with daily drilling operations and integrating them with robot operations.

5. Ensuring that our step change is intrinsically safer, and any introduced risks and hazards are captured and controlled.

6. Our team has faced and continues to face numerous other challenges in completing this project, but these were identified as non-negotiables.

EDM – 45K at a Titeline drill site

Reckoning with robotics

After numerous brainstorming sessions concerning the next phase of development for a hands-free system, the idea of using robotics was brought to the table and a feasibility study began. Robotics has been used in many industries for many decades and it has proven to be reliable and robust, having been deployed for many purposes, including metal inert gas (MIG) welding, sand blasting, plasma cutting and in mining, for replacing conveyer rollers while the conveyer is still in operation.

Though the physical look of industrial robots may not have changed in recent years the technology driving the robots has advanced significantly.  The Programmable Logic Controllers driving these robots are now much smaller and smarter than ever, with the only limitation being your imagination.

To transform its research into practice, Titeline engaged the services of two engineers who had previous experience in the design of drill rigs and contracted a specialist robotics company to supply and program the rod-handling robot.

The prototype drill rig and dedicated rod carrier were fabricated locally and assembled in Titeline’s own workshop. The robot was fitted, and programming testing has recently commenced. Initial results are outstanding and field testing will commence in September. Fully automated rod tripping at the touch of a button is now a reality and along with the existing automated drilling capacity of the selected drill rig, it opens up the possibility of remotely monitored autonomous underground diamond drilling.

CEO of Titeline Group Mr Bill Ricciardi commented: ‘We are excited about the development of this unique piece of equipment and to be able to offer to our clients an intrinsically safer method of rod handling that removes all personnel from the physical process. We want our people to be safe and we will continue to push the envelope in how we go about doing that. We have a great team of people working on the project, and once it is completed, we will move on to new developments utilizing the knowledge we have gained in robotics, AI, and their potential to revolutionize how we work.’

Dawn in Western Victoria

For more information:

Titeline Drilling: www.titelinedrilling.com.au
Video demonstrating the EDM rod-feeder system: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkKDmwzS4lw