¡VAMOS! An external view of the underwater mining research project
After nearly five years of research, development and field trials, the international EU-funded ¡VAMOS! (Viable Alternative Mine Operating System) project, in which Damen played a leading role, has come to an end. In this article Jenny Rainbird, from leading design, engineering and risk management consultancy BMT, who was responsible for overseeing and coordinating the project, gives her view of the process, challenges and outcomes.
“This project to design, build and test a robotic, underwater mining prototype with associated launch and recovery equipment for use in extracting critical minerals from flooded, open-cast mines, was special from the start,” she says. “It is rare for an EU-funded project to build a prototype of the size and scale of the ¡VAMOS! Usually research is paper-based, with testing being conducted in laboratory, so the scope and scale of this project is unique!”
What made the difference was the fact that the project was backed by an exceptionally strong team of industrial partners, which for the EU meant less risk. Also some of the technology, such as Damen’s barge and the actual mining / dredging equipment, was based on existing technology, which also increased confidence. However, the AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle), the data fusion for the autonomous pilot team, the virtual reality viewer and the sensors were all cutting edge, so the innovation aspect was undiminished.
Among the 17 partners involved in ¡VAMOS!, Damen played a significant role. “Damen had the second highest budget allocation of all the team members,” continues Jenny, “and with that it was responsible for building the floating launch and recovery vessel (LARV), the dual-stage pump on the mining vehicle itself and the positioning system that manoeuvred the LARV. It was also a key player in managing the field trials, was the leader of the advisory boards, ran the risk log, was responsible for quality assurance and took the lead on press and publicity. Lastly, it was a member of the core project management team.”
Like all projects of this scale, it took time to get it all running smoothly. Participating in an EU project was new for most of the 17 organisations involved, and only a couple had previously worked together. “We had our fair share of challenges,” says Jenny. “Developing the new equipment required time and testing. In particular the sensors but also the machinery and various components required adaptation and fine-tuning, but it was organising the sites for the field trials that consumed a good deal of unexpected time and effort.
“Firstly, the site of the initial trial, in Cornwall in the south-west of England, had very soft material. While the resulting murky water was great for testing the positioning and navigation systems and sensors, it meant that we could not put the cutters properly through their paces. For the second trial, problems arose at the designated site in Bosnia Herzegovina where opposition arose from local stakeholders to our proposed presence. Local politics played a part as did objections from anglers that used the flooded pit, so ultimately we had to abandon our plans to use that site. It took some time to find a replacement that could fulfil our exact requirements but we luckily found the disused kaolin pit in Tipperary, Ireland, that is going to be part of a new hydro-electric power project. There our activities benefited everyone involved with the owners grateful for the survey and environmental data that we collected and supplied to them. It was a good fit in the end, but altogether these issues set the programme back by an additional six months.”
Once underway, however, the trials were a great success. Guests from over seventy external organisations both commercial and research-orientated joined the 30-strong project team in Ireland in October 2018 to view the system in action.
“The EU considers the project to have been a great success,” continues Jenny. “The technology has been proven and we expect a number of patents to be filed as a result of the research and development. The actual adoption of the system for extracting minerals from flooded open-cast mines in an economical and sustainable manner will depend on their underlying prices and the differences in cost of extraction compared to conventional techniques. However, a number of the key partners are now evaluating it for possible commercial implementation.
“In addition, the technology is also likely to be applicable to other applications such as decommissioning, exploration in flooded tunnels, and the AUV was used just after the trials in a search and rescue operation. With its advanced sensors it can be used for a wide range of underwater activities. The virtual reality view developed here at BMT that allows the pilot to view the surroundings and pilot the mining vehicle from different positions can also be applied in a variety of other fields. Other elements of the ¡VAMOS! system that have additional commercial applications include Damen’s dual-stage pump and the LARV, and the ability to change the buckets and picks underwater, which has not been done before. All these give additional routes to market as well as the underlying system.
“In all, ¡VAMOS! has been a big success, concludes Jenny Rainbird, “and we should see its benefits emerging over the years to come. With an environmental impact that is negligible compared to the standard mining techniques of drilling and blasting, it can be used safely and unobtrusively in sensitive and inhabited areas with minimal disruption to the immediate eco-systems and local residents. These are significant factors that should enhance its appeal, and we look forward seeing its adoption across Europe and beyond.
|This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020
research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 642477