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Mars Rover tech digs into Saudi mineral potential

The Nomad mining robot is based on Mars Rover technology but is exploring Saudi Arabia's mineral potential ERG
The Nomad mining robot is based on Mars Rover technology but is exploring Saudi Arabia's mineral potential
  • ERG unveils mining robot
  • 400% more efficient
  • Minerals worth up to $2.5 trn

A mining and natural resources company is deploying technology based on Nasa’s Mars Rover in Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom ramps up its mineral wealth potential.

Eurasian Resources Group (ERG) unveiled its Nomad robot at the Future Mineral Forum in Riyadh on Wednesday. It said the technology will “change early-exploration efforts as we know them”.

A remotely operated soil sampling robot, Nomad has been designed to thrive in challenging terrains, such as those found in Saudi Arabia.

The value of Saudi Arabia’s untapped mineral wealth has almost doubled in nearly a decade to an estimated $2.5 trillion, according to mining minister Bandar Al-Khorayef, who cited new discoveries of rare earth elements, phosphate, gold, zinc and copper.

The minister predicted that SAR75 billion ($20 billion) worth of contracts would be signed for research and technology on the sidelines of the Riyadh forum.

“These figures are only based on 30 percent of the Arabian Shield exploration, suggesting there is more to be discovered,” Al-Khorayef said. “It clearly shows that with more investment in exploration it is possible to maximise the endowment potential.”

Jonathan Cordero, head of corporate development at Luxembourg-based ERG, told AGBI his company was working on collaborations with academia and industry and expects to see a fleet of Nomads servicing mining companies in Saudi Arabia in the future.

Al-Khorayef said licences would be issued this year to a further 33 exploration sites, including what he described as “country-size sites” in response to complaints from international players that exploration areas were not big enough. 

The Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources announced on Wednesday three preferred bidders in the fourth series of licensing rounds for mining exploration.

The companies will invest SAR213 million in work at sites in Bir Umq, Jabal Sahabiyah and Umm Hadid to find mineral deposits of copper, zinc, lead and silver. The sites vary in size from 187 sq km to 283 sq km.

ERG
ERG’s Nomad robot underwent field trials in the Ad Dawidimi region
Working with Nomad

ERG Arabia is undertaking early-stage exploration work across three areas in the kingdom, in Ad Dawadmi, Al Amar and Wadi Wassat North, and many other licensing applications are in the pipeline.

Based on technology from Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover mission, which began in 2003, Nomad incorporates a remote, all-wheel-drive semi-autonomous navigation system, a multi-sensor platform to scan samples and a soil drill that digs as deep as 80 cm.

It arrived in the kingdom last month and has undergone field trials in the Ad Dawidimi region. ERG says it achieved a 400 percent increase in operational efficiency compared with conventional manual exploration methods.

Nomad was able to collect more than 120 soil samples daily – a major improvement on the maximum of 30 samples that can be achieved manually, ERG revealed.

ERG expansion

Benedikt Sobotka, CEO of ERG, said the kingdom could be an answer to the growing global demand for critical minerals.

“We are at a historical point when minerals are in the spotlight as vital elements for the energy transition, food security and global development,” Al-Khorayef said.

ERG invested $50 million last year to launch operations in Saudi Arabia.

Maaden, Saudi Arabia’s flagship mining company, said this month it had discovered “significant” gold resource potential south of the existing Mansourah Massarah gold mine. 

ERG Technology Intelligence built Nomad in partnership with Chilean robotics company Godelius. Its parent company plans to roll out Nomad across its mining projects in Saudi Arabia before expanding its use globally. 

ERG’s entry into Saudi Arabia – its 16th market globally – last year coincided with the World Bank estimating that 75 percent of global exploration spend goes to only 10 countries. 

Research shows that global demand for minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt could increase fivefold by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies. 

Estimates indicate that more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to realise the goals of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Sobotka said last year that Saudi Arabia provides “exceptional conditions” to help deliver essential materials for the production of batteries and renewable energy systems in the long term.

Saudi Arabia is exploring for lithium and other rare metals as part of its drive to become a location of electric vehicle manufacturing. 

In December the kingdom said it is also exploring the launch of a new commodity trading platform for battery materials, including graphite and rare earths, for which there are presently no exchanges offering contracts. 

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