Giant Robots Are the Future of Underwater Mining 2022

Giant Robots: How an army of strangely different monstrous machines works together to bring riches from the seabed. A 700-foot-long ship sits off the coast of Papua New Guinea. But this beast isn’t even the star of the show—it’s the control platform for a trio of even more formidable robots about to embark on a daring mission to the bottom of the ocean.

Their target is the Solvara 1 seafloor, a place with deposits of silver and copper in concentrations ten times higher than you’d find on land. Downstream, seawater is heated to about 750 degrees Fahrenheit by volcanic activity and jets from the ocean floor. The warm water mixes with cold seawater and leaves behind tall rock chimneys rich in resources, called seafloor massive sulfides (SMS).

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Canadian company Nautilus Minerals has been preparing for years to begin drilling in this difficult location, as mining a mile under the sea requires some extreme engineering. “Anything you do on land is ten times harder underwater,” Mark Collins, managing director of ROV systems at Soil Machine Dynamics, tells Popular Mechanics.

Solara 1 is such a big job that it requires an equally big machine—three of them, to be exact, the smallest weighing more than two hundred tons. Now Nautilus just needs to find out if these extreme machines are really up to the task.

A control room on a production support vessel. The production support vessel is a 700-foot mothership that not only controls the three large drilling machines, but also the smaller scout boats that will first go to the seabed. The ship has an opening where cables and pipes reach the tank-like robots on the sea floor. Like other tracked vehicles, these megabits are driven by levers controlling the speed of each track. Each robot has a variety of sensors, including seven cameras, nine sonar heads pointing in different directions, gyros, accelerometers, and positioning sensors.

Sometimes, operators are driving blind. The robot has powerful lights, but mining operations cloud the water very quickly. When things get too blurry, maneuvering relies on 3D sonar and positioning sensors.

Once the machines are safely at their destination, other sensors help with all the cutting and assembly. The instruments display vibrations and pumping pressure, and an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, allows the operator to listen to the sounds of the head cutting off different types of rocks.

Before Nautilus can start digging, it needs to know where it is going first. It’s time to send out the scouts before the monster machines start working.

The first scout machine, called the Abyss Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, is a torpedo-shaped craft that is 13 feet long and weighs just under a ton. AUVs like the Abyss are autonomous, free-roaming, and can execute missions following a predetermined plan. Abyss hits its maximum depth of 30,000 feet and can stay in motion for a full 24 hours.

Aboard the Abyss has two types of survey tools. The first is sonar, so Abyss can map the contours of the seabed and landscape features. The other is a sensitive magnetometer, which works like a metal detector. In this way, surveyors can create a complete magnetic map of a potential excavation site. Metallic metals distort the Earth’s magnetic field, so the map shows the location of the most concentrated deposits.

“Work Class” ROV.

“Work Class” ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles)—larger than AUVs and weighing between two and four tons—are smaller than the monster mining machines that follow. These machines are connected by a communication cable that connects them to the operator on the production support vessel. Although not as mobile as AUVs, ROVs have Omni-directional water jets for horizontal and vertical movement, so they can be precisely positioned and hovered wherever they are needed.

“Work class” means that the machines are there to do some serious work. With powerful hydraulic arms equipped with pincers to collect mineral samples, the ROV can also drill to collect rock core samples. After touching the piece of rock, the arm is dexterous enough to place the sample in the collection area. Can even pick up a snail without hurting it.

The ROVs will enter the volcanic chimney rocks to take ore samples and create a cross-section of what’s inside. Then, finally, Nautilus called in the big guns.

Auxiliary Cutter: Trailblazer

This is where the auxiliary cutter comes in, carving flat working surfaces known as “benches” from the uneven seabed. It can sit on slopes of up to twenty degrees and still cut the surface. The operator places the auxiliary cutter on the rock faces, deploys its stabilizers, and performs a series of sweeps along the cutting head, eating away at the rock until it reaches the desired shape. It also drops projecting chimneys that can disrupt excavation.

Achieving this without getting stuck or damaged requires careful planning and a thorough survey so there are no unpleasant surprises. “You need a very detailed map of the sea floor,” says Collins. “That’s the technology that unlocks the potential of the sea floor.”

Once it has dug these benches, the auxiliary cutter can join in the fun of grinding the ore, or it can move on to start another site while this next machine gets to work.

Bulkcutter: Big beast

At 310 tons, the bulk cutter is the largest of the three subsea robots. Like the others, it is powered by electricity and connected to the surface with a long umbilical cable. It’s not as stable as an auxiliary cutter, so it moves carefully on flat benches. Catching a track on a spreading rock, or worse, falling, would be a disaster. While the top speed is only half a mile per hour, normal tasks are performed at much lower speeds.

“It’s like driving a bulldozer by remote control, with separate controls for the left and right tracks,” says Steph Kapsiak, SMD’s project director. Now, imagine doing all this while driving blind.

At 300 tons, the bulk cutter is the largest of the three seafloor robots.

“Visibility can be impaired if there’s black smoke adjacent to the area or dirt in the nearby field from mining,” says Kapusniak, referring to the cloud of debris thrown up during harvesting. “Pilots rely on sonar and twin navigation.”

The main feature of the 46-foot-long bulk cutter is its huge cutting drum, manufactured by Swedish company Sandvik. The drum is based on the cutters used by continuous mining machines in coal mines and is driven by two 800-horsepower motors, and eats into an exposed rock face.

Once the ore is mashed into gravel, the bedrock remains on the seabed, ready for the third and final member of the underwater robot team.

Collection Machine: Super Soaker

Borrowing heavily from tech often used in dredging operations, the collection machine is essentially a giant vacuum cleaner with a dredging crown cutter attached to the device at the end of its boom. The operator uses it to agitate the pile of material left by the previous two robots, agitating it with seawater to suck it into the slurry. The slurry is passed through three 440-horsepower dredge pumps to the Subsea Slurry Lift Pump, and from there is piped to the surface.

A major challenge is maintaining the correct concentration of ore in the slurry mix. If you have too little, you’re wasting energy just pumping water. If you have too much, the pipes get clogged and the whole thing stops.

Once the assembly machine creates the perfect mix, the massive robots are done, but the job isn’t over. The riser system brings the slurry through flexible pipes to the surface production support vessel.

The slurry is dried and an advanced, automated cargo handling system takes over. The frames are fitted with two abrasive conveyor belts that can move horizontally and vertically through the hold. They lift ore and load it into bucket elevators, which transfer it to mobile telescoping pipes.

These pipes then transport the ore to a ship, a fifty-thousand-ton bulk ore carrier called a “handymax,” whose sets depart for smelting in China.

By land or by sea?

On land, such an operation would involve a vast pit with a fleet of trucks in constant motion, a cloud of dust, and considerable safety hazards. At sea, there is nothing to see on the surface as the ore is pumped on board.

After conducting several environmental impact assessments with universities and environmental organizations, Nautilus says their mining operations will cause far less disruption than land mines. Using commonly used impact metrics, the Nautilus project would cause about one-tenth the disruption of an equivalent land mine.



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