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Analysis

Autonomous Haulage Trucks Embody Efficiency

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 11:01

Visitors at Codelco’s Radimiro Tomic copper mine, Rio Tinto’s Yandicoogina, Nammuldi, and Hope Downs 4 mines, or BHP’s Jimblebar iron mine, can catch a glimpse of the future of mining operations. These Australian and Chilean operations deploy autonomous haulage trucks (AHTs) that make use of sensors and GPS technology to carry out continuous haulage processes. The trucks are programmed to navigate around a pre-defined network of passages connecting loading units to dump locations such as waste dumps, stockpiles, and crushers. They are operated remotely from control rooms designed to monitor and record information on the location, speed, and status of these autonomous units. The benefits of such technology, including a decrease in human-caused accidents, have led these three important mining companies to invest in the race for fully automated processes in mining.

Caterpillar’s own research turned up a number of major advantages to the use of AHTs, which it is now manufacturing to lucrative effect. First of all, the difficulty of hiring and keeping operators in remote mining sites poses a real problem for mining companies. AHTs solve both this problem and several others at once. By removing the need to encourage staff to work in such conditions, AHTs also reduce the amount of human presence around moving equipment. Secondly, while AHTs depend on a control room for instructions, they come prepared with onboard intelligence systems that allow them to memorize a predetermined area they will traverse while picking the best route to finish their tasks. This means than although an AHT requires supervision at all times, the operator is not literally steering as the machine is able pick and follow a specific path, even navigating the obstacles within mine sites. This very technology allows AHTs to perceive and react to other movement around them, such as machines and workers. On-board collision detection technology monitors the AHT’s surroundings at all times and can instantly bring it to a stop in case of danger.

Furthermore, automated trucks could divert employment from driving to automation and create a new job market within the global mining industry. Other automated machines could also replace operators of drilling rigs and aerial vehicles, and reduce the industry’s burdening shortage of skilled workers. Considering these points, competing in the industry will increasingly depend on the ability of people and companies to adapt to the use of autonomous technologies. According to the University of British Columbia, the benefits of these trucks also include an decrease in haulage time, a decrease in

accidents, and a reduction on fuel and maintenance costs. A study by the university suggests that the use of AHTs can reduce the rate of tire wear by 12% and the rate of fuel consumption by 10%, relative to a manual truck operated by an average driver. Moreover, unplanned maintenance can decrease by 14%, while truck life can be prolonged by 12%.

By removing operators from loading and dumping points, mining companies are looking to decrease the number of accidents in their mines. Since continuous load-haul-dumpreturn cycles can last 10 to 12 hours, human drivers are prone to fatigue which can lead to mistakes and, in some cases, potentially fatal accidents. Moreover, by eliminating the need for shifts and reducing the amount of breaks during haulage, the productivity of a mine can increase. For such reasons, Rio Tinto and Codelco are betting on Komatsu for the design, engineering, and manufacturing of their autonomous fleet, while BHP is working with Caterpillar to meet its automation demands. As the use of AHTs steamrolls toward becoming a mining industry mainstay, a further innovation could be developed. Load sensors placed on the trucks could function as a type of telematics, providing detailed information as to how much weight the trucks are hauling compared to their designed capacity. Such precise and constant information could help mining companies and fleet operators severely cut down on wear and tear, since each unit would provide detailed information as to its use.

Rio Tinto is arguably the biggest backer of AHTs in the mining sector today. From 2008 to 2013, Rio Tinto rolled these trucks out in its Australian mining sites, over which period they hauled over 100 million tonnes. In 2014, the mining giant made an order for 40 more additional trucks for three of its mines. Their joint supervision from a center in Perth also helps the company centralize its operations and get a bird’s eye view of all activities. Though Mexican companies have not yet ventured into the use of such autonomous vehicles, Codelco has shown that there is a promising future for AHTs in Latin-American mining operations. Moreover, Australia serves as an example to follow in the field of innovation as it spends an average of US$3.7 billion on R&D, according to Australia’s Bureau of Statistics. While these technologies are mostly used for iron ore and copper mines, their use will without a doubt adapt to a wide range of mining operations across the world in the short- to medium-term. After all, AHTs give mining companies a chance to fight the instability of the metals market conditions with technological solutions that reduce their costs, increase productivity, and limit the uncertainty in their operations.