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Robots to spark seabed gold rush

Tuesday 5 January 2016 | Published in Regional

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TORONTO – If Toronto-based mining company Nautilus Minerals has it their way, there could soon be a swarm of deep-sea mining robots lurking around on the ocean floor of the Bismarck Sea, near Papua New Guinea, to snatch up deposits of copper, gold and silver.

These mining robots, which are tractor-trailer-size excavators, could help unlock a subsea gold rush.

To support the robots, Nautilus is in the process of building a production vessel that will deploy the subsea robots and process the ore they collect.

The ship is scheduled to depart for Papua New Guinea in early 2018.

The mining robots differ in characteristics and have been designed to work as a team.

One uses four-meter-wide counter-rotating heads studded with tungsten carbide picks to chew through the metal-rich chimneys that form around superhot water spewing from sulfurous vents in the seafloor.

Its partner adds brute strength, using a studded drum that is 2.5 meters in diameter and four meters wide to pulverize rock walls.

A third robot will also join in, to feed a slurry of crushed rock and water up a pipe dangling from the production vessel.

However, before these robots can get to work on the ocean floor, there are certainly some roadblocks for Nautilus to overcome.

The most important – he company is still negotiating access to a shallow-water site for a subsea test.

If all goes as planned, the robots – following their initial test – will be deployed for 30 months to recover ore containing metals expected to be worth more than $1.5 billion.