The age of fully automated mining is already here.
Remote-controlled trucks, locomotives and loading systems are in operation in open-cast mines in Australia, and robotic rock drilling rigs are in full swing in mines and on deep-sea oil rigs.
A European car manufacturer is putting the finishing touches to a driverless vehicle that can negotiate a network of tunnels deep underground.
And, if all goes to plan, diggers, bulldozers and other heavy machinery could soon be controlled from mining operations centres that are hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometres away.
Major manufacturers pioneering driverless machines
Japanese heavy equipment manufacturer, Komatsu; US earth moving equipment giant, Caterpillar; and Swedish car manufacturer, Volvo, are among those already manufacturing Automated Haulage Systems (AHS) and driverless trucks for the mining sector.
Working with systems management companies such as Modular Mining Systems and vehicle automation manufacturers, such as Utah-based Autonomous Solutions, these vehicle manufacturers have pulled off a major coup. They are overseeing the roll-out of automated heavy-duty trucks that are intelligent and agile enough to avoid obstacles, follow given routes and perform tasks seamlessly and predictably, around the clock.
The big benefit: continuous mining
Major players in the iron ore and oil sands mining sectors – Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Suncor – have bought in to the concept of driverless mining.
In fact, Rio Tinto deployed Autonomous Load Haul Dump Trucks to Australian mines way back in 2011. In subsequent years, the company added remote-controlled trains, featuring fully automated loading and unloading systems, to its driverless infrastructure.
Today at the Rio Tinto mines, 69 driverless trucks are remote-controlled by technicians located more than 1,200 kilometres away in Perth. These machines move 20 million tonnes of iron ore per month, every month. Factor in an estimated savings of 500 work hours a year per mine, and the cost benefits of automation are significant.
In an industry suffering from depressed commodity prices and high labour costs, automation has proved a godsend. Apart from the obvious savings on wages, automated mining is continuous and repeatable. Mining can continue 24/7.
Maintenance costs are also appreciably lower, with software ensuring that machines operate at an optimal and even pace.
Beyond the limits of GPS
The next major leap in automation technology is the creation of driverless trucks that can operate underground, beyond the limits of GPS. This is where Volvo has stepped in.
The car manufacturer recently tested a laser-guided autonomous FMX truck, containing a sophisticated sensor system, 1,300 metres below ground in Sweden’s Kristenberg Mine.
By all accounts, the demonstration was a resounding success. The vehicle has been deployed permanently to the mine, and three new test trucks will be operational underground during the course of the year.
Asimov’s ‘robot-brains’ realised
The concept of driverless vehicles isn’t new. One of sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s characters talks to a robotic police car that eventually traps him in the back seat in Pedestrian, a short story published in 1951.
Three years later, Isaac Asimov wrote about vehicles with “robot-brains” that could be set, or programmed, to proceed to particular destinations without the “interference of slow human reflexes”.
Today, driverless vehicles perform complex tasks using a combination of computer software, sensors, GPS navigation and other smart technologies that can, collectively, be referred to as ‘robotic brains’.
Tech giants Google and Tesla are in the advanced stages of developing self-driving cars for use on public roads. The Australian government is busy changing legislations to allow fleets of driverless trucks on state highways and byways.
Robotic devices powered by Artificial Intelligence are already capable of doing almost all mining activities, from loading, hauling and blasting to bolting mine roofs, ore sampling and even rescuing trapped or injured mine workers.
Source: KH Plant