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Augmented reality, autonomous trucks and other technologies on the horizon for the mining industry.

In our most recent mining discussion – Australia’s Labour Shortage – we touched on how autonomy in the mining industry could help alleviate any future labour shortages. In this article, we breakdown what part autonomy currently plays in the mining industry and what the future holds.

Current Autonomy Practices

Autonomous mining is helping shift the industry away from traditional, labour-intensive mining towards digitally automated methods. Autonomous mining can take the form of either process/software automation (IT automation) or robotic automation of equipment and vehicles (OT automation). Implementing autonomy revolves around three key areas; safety, time and money. By removing human labour from dangerous worksites and machinery, safety can be greatly improved and maintained. Efficiencies in operations, particularly the fact that autonomous vehicles can run 24/7, ensure transparency and deeper insights of return on investments, as well as improving the bottom line.

Autonomous Haulage Trucks

Autonomous mining haulage trucks are driverless vehicles that can navigate and sense a mine site environment without any human intervention. The benefits of these trucks include:

  • Can operate 24/7
  • No breaks or shift changing required
  • Reliability benefits 
  • Reduction in human errors
  • Up to 20% productivity advantage 
  • Increased efficiency in operations, in some cases up to 30%
  • Reduction of human presence in dangerous areas
  • Improved fuel usage by 4% with 25-50% reduced idle time
Figure 1 below shows how Australia leads the way in the number of autonomous hail trucks in use with mining giants BHP, Fortescue Metals Group and Rio Tinto leading the way with 300, 193 and 187 trucks respectively. From a global perspective, there are currently around 1,068 autonomous haul trucks in use, with manufacturers Caterpillar and Komatsu commanding a 86.5% market share. The total number of autonomous vehicles is expected to exceed 1,800 by the end of 2025.

Whilst taking these benefits into consideration, some may argue that with the increase in autonomous vehicles, hundreds of driver jobs are going to be lost. Mining experts Nathan Sharpe and Mark Crow believe that this won’t necessarily be the case but rather a transition of people will occur whereby existing drivers can be trained in autonomous operations or have their vast experienced used elsewhere. Michelle Ash, chair of Global Mining Guidelines also believes that automation will become the norm and that miners, as well as employees, will need to prepare for this inevitable transition.

“As we automate, we will have less direct operators but more maintenance staff and more trainers of robotics and more overseers of robotic applications” Ash says. With this changing environment, it will be vital to retrain and reorient existing workforces whilst also focusing on integrating the rising workforce.”



Future Autonomy Practices

The first autonomous mining truck was debuted by Caterpillar in 1996, meaning on average, 41 vehicles have entered service each year over a 26-year span. This shows that the research, development and implementation of autonomy is a rigorous yet slow moving process but still proves that boosting efficiency and productivity, improving safety and reducing overall costs are hugely beneficial contributors to hastening expansion. EY, a professional services multinational, supports the progression of automation. An analysis conducted by the firm showed that miners who already had automation implemented into their site infrastructure fared better during the pandemic than those who didn’t. A survey by the firm also revealed that overall, mining companies plan to increase investment in digitisation and automation, with the top priority being robotic process automation.

Where then is autonomy in mining headed and what can we expect from this space in the future?

The Connected Digital Mine

The objective for any mine site is to continually improve upon its mining operations, safety, sustainability and efficiency. To meet these objectives, Nokia has formulated a solution they have termed as ‘critical communications solutions’. They provide various examples in which a mine site can be made autonomous through digital communications. (see figure 2 for visual representation)

Autonomous Vehicles: This segment will continue to grow with remote operations further supplementing automation, allowing personnel to monitor automated processes and operate machinery long distance using virtual telepresence allowing for 24/7 operations.

Rio Tinto for example will deploy the world's first fully autonomous water truck which will help to suppress dust on site as well as allow mining operators to digitally track water consumption and reduce waste. An intelligent onboard system helps detect dry and dusty conditions on site, triggering the dispersal of water before recognizing when it needs to be refilled again.

Situational Awareness: Awareness of people, assets, infrastructure and the environment are fundamental for reducing risks, improving safety and accurately assessing productivity in a functioning mine site.

At Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri iron ore mine, regarded as the most technologically advanced mine site, data will be collected from a variety of sources giving a live status update of people, assets and productivity. Its use of robotics for ore sampling and asset tracking technology are just two ways where situational awareness is being applied.

Geo-Location, Tracking And Fencing: Smart personal protective equipment (PPE) wearables can be used with geo-fencing applications to alert workers to no-go or dangerous zones. This technology also provides a much-needed lifeline in riskier environments where human presence is necessary.

Predictive Asset Maintenance: Collecting data from internet of things (IoT) sensors helps mining companies to identify the condition of every mine site asset in real time which can help predict potential failures and use condition-based maintenance to reduce costs, increase utilization and extend the lifetime of the asset.

Augmented Reality: AR or virtual reality (VR) systems can be used to both train workers in new skills and mining operations before setting foot on site. This technology can also give miners real-time information, stemming from predictive asset maintenance, with workers remedying issues quickly thanks to the guidance of AR glasses which can take a step-by-step approach to rapid issue resolution.

Rio’s Gudai-Darri mine has both an interactive 3D virtual reality training program as well as a full digital replica of its processing plant, allowing teams to monitor and respond to the constant stream of data from the facility.

Figure 2.

Source: Nokia Mining

The future of autonomous mining is an exciting one. As innovation and technology continues to progress, the mining industry will undoubtedly increase investment and implementation of autonomous assets. This will greatly improve the industries safety standards, develop better efficiencies in production and cut down on operating costs. The fear that jobs will be lost to automation is understandable, but a strategic transition will be key to ensure existing workers are upskilled and trained to migrate to new roles whilst welcoming the next generation of autonomously skilled personnel.

07 Sep