Load & Haul, Other, Regulation

The path to autonomous machine operation

The use of autonomous drills and haul trucks in the Australian mining industry is commonplace, but what about the quarry industry? Eltirus founder Steve Franklin explores.

In 1994 the first Caterpillar autonomous haul truck trial (a 777) occurred at a Texas Crushed Stone quarry in the US. At a similar time, Komatsu were trialling autonomous HD985 haul trucks at Alcoa in WA.

Now we have around 500 autonomous haul trucks in the mining industry, predominantly in the iron ore mines of Western Australia.

Not only is this technology in common use, but it is also safe. According to Caterpillar, autonomous mine haul trucks have travelled 90 million kilometres without a lost time injury (LTI) and reducing safety-related incidents by 50 per cent (as of 2020).

Levels of autonomous operation
It is easy to think of an autonomous machine as one that does not require an operator. Interestingly, the path to autonomy is generally broken down into six steps, from Level 0 “no autonomy” through to Level 5 “full autonomy” with intermediate steps in between.

By way of example, both Sandvik and Epiroc provide Hole Navigation System (HNS) and AutoDrill functionality on their drill rigs – this is a good example of Level 4 autonomy.

An operator is still required to tram the drill from hole to hole and initiate the drilling sequence, however the drill is capable of collaring, drilling the hole and changing rods in and out of the hole without operator intervention.

Experience shows that drill rig Level 5, “full autonomy” is possible, however a primary limiting factor is the need to change drill bits during shift – something the machine can’t currently do.

Current equipment options
Several manufacturers are producing autonomous haul trucks that target the quarry industry. This includes the Scania AXL, the Volvo FH on-road truck and the Volvo TA15.

Six Volvo FH autonomous semi-trailer tippers have been working at the Brønnøy Kalk limestone mine in Norway since 2019, hauling material out of the pit to the primary crusher.

Not only are the trucks unique, but so is the concept that they are operating under. Rather than purchasing the autonomous vehicles, Brønnøy Kalk is buying a complete, tailored transport solution from Volvo Trucks – more specifically, the autonomous transportation of the limestone between the pit and the crusher.

The only autonomous truck that has off-road type quarry capability is the Volvo TA15. This truck is unique in that it is not only autonomous, but also electric. While the payload is only 15t, a fleet of these small trucks can replace much bigger machines.

This concept is currently in trials with Holcim in Switzerland at their Siggenthal operations and several other locations.

Does the legislation support autonomous operation?
Is autonomous operation legal in Australia? The short answer is yes, with most states having published guidelines. For example, the ‘Queensland guidance note – Autonomous mobile machinery & vehicle introduction & their use in coal mining’; ‘Code of Practice – Safe mobile autonomous mining in WA’; and ‘Guideline – Autonomous Mobile Mining Plant’ from the NSW Resources Regulator.

What do we need to do to make autonomous operation possible?
Probably the best reference on this subject is the ‘WA Code of Practice – Safe mobile autonomous mining in Western Australia’. This document notes the key issues that need to be considered in mine planning and design for hazard control:

  1. Designing and planning for autonomy
  2. Managing interactions
  3. Autonomous infrastructure
  4. The operating environment
  5. Change management

Specifically, it notes that mine designers and planners should understand the limitations of any autonomous mining technology being used, including:

  • Application of engineering and system controls to safety process and practices
  • Modification of established planning and operational processes
  • Life cycle planning (e.g. fleet replacement)
  • Verification of system data (e.g. surveys) to validate mine designs and plans
  • Knowledge and competency of planning and operational personnel.

Work area design and construction should be suitable for autonomy and minimise interaction with personnel and non-autonomous equipment, taking into account:

  • System builder recommendations
  • Access controls and processes for exclusion and interface areas
  • Traffic management (e.g., road network, intersections, park-ups, load and dump locations)
  • Placement of infrastructure within the autonomous area.

The design, location and integration of autonomous infrastructure will need to consider:

  • The scalability and capability of the autonomous system and associated infrastructure
  • Equipment specifications, fleet size and operating capabilities (e.g., turning circle, road network layout, gradient)
  • Communication systems (e.g., wireless, fixed)
  • Area access (e.g., location and control of area entry and exit points, provision of perimeter protection and signage)
  • Monitoring system health (e.g., wireless, positioning systems).

Work areas need to be suitable for autonomy, taking into account:

  • Work area, road design and construction are in line with the system builder requirements (e.g., road surface, gradients, potentially harsh conditions)
  • Traffic management area segregation (e.g., separation of autonomous equipment from personnel and manned equipment for park-ups, go-lines, and specific work areas)
  • Area segregation (e.g., separation of autonomous equipment from personnel and manned equipment for park-ups, go-lines, and specific work areas).

Ensure a comprehensive change management system is employed for mine planning and design changes that are introduced through the use of autonomous mining technology, including:

  • Operational and maintenance practices
  • Design specifications
  • System changes (e.g., updates, upgrades) that affect mine design
  • Data collection and integration.

The short story is that there is a lot to consider, much of it well ahead of when the technology will actually be available.

Addressing the skills shortage
The WA Code of Practice makes continual mention of “mine designers and planners” throughout the document.

Unless actioned now, one of the issues the industry will run into is that the technical professionals needed are already scarce and are increasingly so. Graduates and unqualified personnel won’t cut it.

The number of mining engineers being graduated versus the roles to be filled in the mining industry is in a significant imbalance – Australia requires 1,500 new mining engineers by 2025, but only 50 mining engineers are expected to graduate in 2022. How will the quarry industry tackle this issue?

Change management
The primary barrier to fundamental change of this type is generally found in our own attitudes about what is “possible” rather than what can be done if we change our “viewpoint”.

Like all major changes, it will take companies with the courage to do something different (a risk, of course), potentially vaulting them ahead of their competitors in terms of sustainability, safety and cost performance.

By way of example, until 1954, no-one had ever broken the four-minute mile. In fact it was considered by many to be “impossible”. Since that time, 1,663 athletes have bettered this time, proving that once it was shown as a possibility, many could achieve it.

Key things to consider are:

  1. Digitalisation of quarry survey, geological and planning data will be vital.
  2. Sites will need to have sufficient IT bandwidth to enable these types of technologies.
  3. Technical professionals (Surveyors, Geologists and Mining Engineers) will be needed to plan and run these systems.
  4. Will the industry recruit IT and communication specialists or rely on the dealers to provide not only the equipment but also the communication and planning systems to support them?

In short, there are a wide range of issues to address now if we are to be ready for this technology once it is commercially available.

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