Home Autonomous Haulage Systems – The Future of Mining Operations

A transition toward autonomous operations in mining

Autonomy in mining began in 1990 with Komatsu Mining using the Field Management Software for mines as a foundation. Commercial deployment for Komatsu mining was in Chile in 2007 and Australia in 2008. As self-driving vehicles are getting more mature and commercialized in the market, the Internet of Things (IoT), AI, machine learning, analytics, and wireless connectivity have become widespread. In the mining industry, there has been an increasing trend and adoption of automated haul trucks and other mobile equipment. Today numerous companies have fleets of autonomous trucks, trains, and loaders at mine sites, but most are in the testing phase of using these vehicles.

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One of the good examples of mining autonomy at work currently is the Resolute Mining operation in Mali. The entire process, including drilling, charging, blasting, loading, and trucking, is carried out via an autonomous system. This has reduced the cost of gold production by $135 per ounce and cut mining costs by 30 percent.

The primary benefit of autonomous mining operations is safety, as the toll of killed, injured, or missing in the mining industry is more than 15,000 every year. Another benefit is productivity increase and cost reduction since the trucks can work 24/7 and reduce the mines’ labor. But it is essential to check demographics before deploying autonomous haul trucks since human labor is available at lower costs in some geographies than in others. So, it is vital to have a cost-benefit analysis for the same.

Autonomous Haulage Systems (AHS) are considered a cheaper, safer, and more reliable option to run the mines by mining companies, especially those in the Americas, Australia, and Europe since the cost of the workforce is high or there is an increased risk in the terrain. In addition, autonomous haulage systems will improve efficiency and productivity while keeping safety and sustainability in check, making it a win-win situation for both employers and employees.

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Major Enablers and Competitors in the current market scenario

Several players in the ecosystem are finding ways to gain momentum in this shifting market by focusing their efforts on research and innovation. It is not just the OEM manufacturers but also other players in the value chain apart from the existing technology providers. Some other emerging trends for enabling autonomous haulage systems will consist of geo-referencing technology, which will be facilitated by GNSS (Global navigation satellite system) technology. AI, IoT, and other machine learning technologies, along with user interface solution providers, will also play an essential role in the value chain.

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There are also a lot of solution providers in the value chain that will provide the appropriate software solutions along with the proper user interface for a smooth experience in the operations of autonomous haulage.

The developments in the current market scenario for equipment manufacturers are listed below for the leading competitors:

  • Caterpillar – CAT, offers Cat® MineStar™ Command for hauling to enable miners to move more material with fewer people on site. The AHS solution facilitates improved efficiency and near-continuous operation. CAT claims that it can reduce the operational costs of mines by 20% and will enhance productivity by 30%. It also claimed to reduce accidents by 50%. It was launched commercially in 2013. The solution has hauled more than 2.5 billion tonnes.
  • Komatsu– Komatsu offers its FrontRunner AHS for effective mine management. The technology combines Komatsu’s electric drive haul trucks with Modular Mining’s Dispatch fleet management system and allows loaders, graders, and dozers to interact for optimized mine operations. It is equipped with GNSS, integrated controllers, and advanced sensors. The AHS-enabled haul trucks can be controlled from a remotely operated control center. Mining companies implementing FrontRunner technology have hauled more than 3.5 billion tonnes.
  • Hitachi– Hitachi started the first trials of its AHS solution at Australian power generation company Stanwell’s Meandu coal mine in eastern Australia in 2013, which were completed in 2017. The initial scope covered the supply and commissioning of AHS for the Hitachi EH5000AC3 truck fleet, successfully deployed at AHS at a coal mine in Australia in May 2020. Hitachi’s AHS solution leverages its Smart Mining Truck system and the fleet management system provided by Wenco.
  • Scania– Scania and Rio Tinto are testing a new-generation autonomous truck in Western Australia. The first testing phase started in August 2018 using a Scania XT autonomous tipper truck that worked separately from active operations. Known as Scania AXL, the fully autonomous cab-less concept truck was demonstrated for the first time in October 2019, the concept vehicle is steered and controlled by an intelligent control system, and its combustion engine drives power from biofuel.
  • Sandvik– Sandvik launched AutoMine for Trucks, a solution for autonomous ramp haulage applications in underground mining, in March 2020. Its innovative handover technology lets trucks switch between underground and surface navigation modes in real-time. In addition, AutoMine for Trucks can be connected to Sandvik OptiMine®, the company’s mine information management solution, to improve production planning which automatically assigns tasks to AutoMine, and reports back the status of the production tasks to the information management system.
  • Volvo– The company’s autonomous haulage system offering, the TARA transport solution, includes the TA15 battery-electric and autonomous hauler. Volvo is looking to commercialize the TA15 autonomous hauler, which runs on a battery-electric drive train. Equipped with GPS, lidar, and sensors, the cabless truck can avoid obstacles and connect with other TA15 trucks for optimal loading and increased hauling efficiency. Volvo provided six autonomous Volvo FH trucks for an autonomous hub-to-hub solution to transport limestone at Brønnøy Kalk’s mine in Norway
  • ASI– ASI is based out of Utah and is a robotics organization. They provide OEM agnostic and retrofit-capable solutions for autonomous mining operations. They first deployed their haul truck in 2006 at a copper mine in the western USA and began developing its solutions in 2011. Although they have a limited market share in the current market scenario. Still, their systems operate over 13,000 automated vehicles globally and consist of 70 OEM vehicle types used in mining, agriculture, and defense. ASI provides highly modular autonomous solutions enhanced by their OEM agnostic command and control platform – Mobius, which can be utilized as a comprehensive integration platform and autonomous platform.

AHS has recently seen a lot of adoption and is a disruptive trend in the mining industry. By the end of the mining year 2020-21, there were 855 autonomous mining trucks deployed in total.

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Although the AHS seems like an impregnable fortress in the long run for the mining industry, it still has some challenges. Ineffective haul road maintenance might result in slowing or stopping events of Autonomous Haul Trucks. To improve haul road maintenance, contributing factors to these slow or prevent events must be checked upon:

  • Proximity – Water Truck or Grader operating in the vicinity of autonomous vehicles
  • Loss of Traction – Over-watering Road leads to vehicles losing traction
  • Rutting – Poor Road conditions get detected as obstacles by the sensors
  • Dust – Speed restraints are placed when dust levels are too high.
  • Knock-on effect – A vehicle stopped behind another that has been affected by either proximity, loss of traction, rutting, or dust

The Way Forward – Future Road

Although the autonomous haul trucks market is not so mature currently, there will be significant technological advancements bringing about a higher level of commercialization in the market.

There are different levels of automation for autonomous vehicles, and the same stands true for autonomous haul truck systems. It has four operations levels: driver assists, remote control, teleoperation, and complete autonomy.

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Most of the trucks being developed and innovated are primarily aligned to be completely autonomous. The fully autonomous haul trucks would work with the following systems, and the developments in these components would also alleviate the performance of autonomous haulage systems as well:

  • Kit Sensors – A collection of sensors collect the environment and relay it to onboard systems to provide surrounding awareness to the haul trucks. As highly developed sensors with higher sensitivity and intelligence arrive in the marketplace, the haulage systems would function better, and the haul trucks would stop and change at the right time.
  • Control Unit – It is the brain of the haul truck and the interpreter between the haul truck, server, and the platform the operator uses to relay information. It is the most critical component, and many advancements are being made to improve the trucks’ intelligence. AI is also used along with big data to relay suggestions to the users regarding alternative pathways to the operators. The vehicle operation interface is also getting simpler by the day for the ease of training for the operators.

There is also scope for autonomous haulage trucks in space mining in the far future. When it is easier to transport mining equipment to mine resources in outer space, these trucks will play a huge role there since they require a remote operator and can be used to mine without risk.

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