Auto advantages in mining

Materials World magazine
2 Nov 2016

Khai Trung Le looks at the mining industry’s furthered commitments to automation as it seeks to future–proof against a period of growing uncertainty. 

The discussion of the future of mining has permeated across industry, environmentalists and governments, and attracted some perhaps unusual voices, including Pope Francis, who in June 2015 called for a ‘radical paradigm shift’ in mining operations. His appeal to recognise ‘the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ may not necessarily resonate with mining interest shareholders, but there is widespread agreement among all that change is essential. The manifestation of that change is yet to be known, but one thing seems certain – automation will be integral to it. 

Driverless trucks have already been introduced by some of the largest mining companies, including Rio Tinto and BHP Biliton, with the former converting its Yandicoogina and Nammuldi mines in Pilbara, Australia, to move all of its iron ore through automated driverless trucks in October 2015. The movement of all iron ore at these sites is solely handled by 69 driverless trucks, each controlled at the Rio Tinto Operations Centre in Perth, 1,200km away from Pilbara, moving more than 20 million tonnes of ore at these sites every month. In addition to driverless vehicles, the company has also explored the use of automated trains and drilling as part of Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future concept.

BHP Billiton has also committed to automation, deploying a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles at the Queensland Goonyella coal mine to monitor worker safety and the mine’s operations, as well as 20 Pit Viper 271 rotary autonomous blasthole rigs, manufactured by Atlas Copco, across several western Australia sites. The blasthole drills currently require on-site control, with a statement by Atlas Copco revealing ‘a longer term aim of remote operation from the [BHP] integrated remote operations centre in Perth’.

It’s not just the biggest players in the industry exploring automation. Swedish mining group Boliden has partnered with Volvo to develop driverless trucks capable of manoeuvring beyond GPS navigation for use in underground tunnels. The concept vehicle – a standard FMX truck – is outfitted with six light radar lasers that generate a 3D map of the truck’s surroundings, enabling the vehicle to navigate around unexpected obstacles, while an on-board computer evaluates data collected from the lasers to chart its route and monitor fuel consumption. Volvo automation group leader Johan Tofeldt demonstrated the technology to The Guardian in May 2016 and although he was hesitant to make extravagant claims, stating, ‘These tunnels are like a living room compared to a mine,’ its first use at the Kristineberg mine, Sweden, saw the concept vehicle successfully hauling materials over a 7km course, 1,320m underground. 

Playing chicken

The advantages of robotic continuous mining systems are easy to recognise. But the most lucrative is the promise of 24-hour operation across 365 days a year. Rio Tinto has estimated that each driverless truck could save up to 500 working hours per year.  

Rio Tinto Yandicoogina Operations Manager Josh Bennett said, ‘We have taken away a very high-risk role, where employees are exposed to fatigue. It is quite challenging to get repeatability out of a human. One of the advantages we have had with autonomous haulage, particularly in the truck fleet, is that we noticed we are getting consistency in terms of the way the machines are operating.’ While the move towards automation has long been paired with the loss of hands-on roles, Bennett believes this will be offset by the creation of skilled positions. ‘We have got roles that are being created such as a central controller and a pit controller which are essential to running autonomous systems. Those are jobs that did not exist five years ago.’

Volvo has focused its argument on automation’s societal benefits, including potential productivity increases, the need for fewer vehicles representing CO2 and fuel consumption reduction, and lowering the risk and cost of accidents, with Senior Planning Manager Anders Kellström seeing mining as a natural fit to develop the technology before it enters wider consumer use. ‘We believe high levels of autonomy will come to mines first, where we are not restricted by legislation in the same way as we would be if we were preparing to drive on public highways. It makes sense and is technically possible to do, so we are doing it.’

Kevin Curran, ambient intelligence research group leader at the University of Ulster, UK, shared Kellström’s observations of mining and automation’s natural fit, stating, ‘In a confined area where you have control and no pedestrians, driverless is relatively easy – it is ridiculous to have the overheads of staff, and with GPS you can build sensors for peanuts.’ However, Mike Henry, BHP President of Operations Minerals, was more reserved as to the prospect of the unmanned mine. ‘You will see incremental progress on automation, but the day when you have no one sitting on a mine site is very, very far into the future. You still have people on site but there will be activities that will be monitored and managed out of the Brisbane office. The focus here is not reducing people, it’s getting people sitting beside each other.’ 

Confidence in automation is increasing. If Tofeldt’s response back in May to the suggestion he exit the lorry and step out in front revealed lingering doubts – ‘Safety comes first, and we still don’t trust it’ – Volvo’s latest video released in September 2016 featuring Chief Technology Officer Torbjörn Holmström ‘playing chicken’ with the concept truck reaffirms their commitment.