Steve Franklin, founder of Eltirus, explains why autonomous operation is important to the future of quarrying, who the market players are and actual progress in the field.
We recently had the Global Mining Group system safety for autonomous mining and implementation of autonomous systems in mining workshops in Brisbane – both of which were incredibly valuable for anyone with an interest in this area and looking to harness the potential of this technology.
But why is autonomous operation relevant to quarrying?
There are now large fleets of autonomous haultrucks in the mining industry with Caterpillar and Komatsu accounting for some 1100 of them alone. They are a proven technology with proven benefits in terms of improved safety and productivity and reduced costs. Touted figures (for diesel autonomous trucks) are some 20-30 per cent lower operating costs and from a safety perspective, lost time injury free to date.
Autonomous haulage system types
Autonomous haulage systems, AHS for short, are generally of two different types; mining-centric systems like Caterpillar MineStar Command and Komatsu AHS that are proprietary systems that rely heavily on a central control room and which conduct most of the control and ‘thinking’ from there and which run trucks that are ‘dumb’.
The second approach (Autonomy 2.0) tends to be both OEM and vehicle agnostic and can be retrofitted to existing fleets. These solutions utilise advanced sensor suites (LiDAR, radar, and cameras) and employ much more onboard computing power, relying less on network connections to a central control room and can allow for localised control by the loading tool operators.
Good examples of this type of thinking are the Pronto.AI and SafeAI systems. It is worth your time to look at the Pronto site – they have an interesting page that talks about what it would take to get an autonomous system up and running on a quarry site.
Current industry players
Following is a list of the current industry players and a summary of their offering and known progress. It is by no means exhaustive.
The Volvo TA15 gets a lot of press. It is a fully automated electric dumper developed by Volvo Autonomous Solutions (not Volvo Construction Equipment) and has a payload of 15t. It’s part of a complete autonomous haulage system called TARA, which includes support with all necessary site infrastructure, from charging stations and safety systems to the operator interface.
Ideal for replacing larger, diesel-powered vehicles, helping to cut emissions, increase efficiency, and optimise machine utilisation by operating as a ‘swarm’ of smaller trucks, it runs on a battery-electric drivetrain and uses Global navigation satellite system GNSS, Lidar, Radar, and multiple sensors for positioning and navigation.
Despite being announced as market ready in late 2020, the only quarry that I am aware of that is trialling this technology is the Holcim Gabenchopf quarry at Siggenthal in Switzerland which announced its trial in late 2021.
Volvo also have a fleet of seven FH autonomous road trucks hauling limestone in the Brönnöy Kalk mine in Velfjord, Norway, which recently reached a major milestone through the removal of the safety driver from the system.
Both these operations are limestone and so do not appear to have the sort of interaction with other vehicles that we would commonly see on an aggregate quarry.
From 1994 to 1995, Caterpillar ran the first two prototype Cat 777C autonomous mining trucks at a Texas limestone quarry, where they successfully hauled more than 5000 production loads over a 2.6-mile course.
In late 2022, Caterpillar Inc. announced a collaboration with Luck Stone, the largest family-owned and operated producer of crushed stone, sand, and gravel in the USA, to deploy their autonomous solution at the Bull Run quarry in Chantilly, Virginia. This will be Caterpillar’s first autonomous deployment in the aggregates industry.
Caterpillar plans to implement its existing Cat MineStar Command for Hauling system at the Bull Run quarry, on a fleet of 777G trucks in 2024. This will allow Caterpillar to gain greater insights on quarry operations to tailor autonomous solutions specific to quarry and aggregate applications.
Bull Run is a multi-million tonne per annum, operating quarry and should be an excellent proving ground for the technology – building on the proven MineStar system and at the same time also working with the well-known and reliable 777G haul truck. The only real variable in my mind is how cost effective MineStar will be for an operation this size.
Komatsu has been at the forefront of autonomous haulage for more than a decade. They have 579 Komatsu autonomous trucks operating at 19 sites in four countries, with some 406 of these trucks operating in Australia.
Interestingly, given how active Komatsu Australia is in the technology space, there do not appear to be any public announcements of an autonomous quarry truck. Given they have recently announced a HD785 water truck, we may see this as a step to the quarry industry (Caterpillar had already introduced a 777G water truck before the trial with Luck Stone was announced). Watch this space.
Scania and Rio Tinto launched trials of their 40-tonne-payload autonomous mining truck (looks like a diesel powered cabover road truck) in April 2022 and quickly reached a key milestone of driverless operation in a simulated load and haul cycle environment.
Rio Tinto’s Channar mine has become the first active partner site for Scania’s autonomous mining solution. The partnership also includes options for the future transition to electric-powered vehicles.
No further details other than that initial trials appear successful.
Pronto.ai delivers off-road AHS specifically engineered for a variety of rugged environments. The system uses camera and GNSS and offers the most affordable system on the market, saving on hardware expenses because the camera and GPS-based system does not depend on expensive equipment like lidar and radar.
Pronto has been working closely with Bell Engineering (though it can also be fitted to other machines) for around 18 months to engineer and refine their hardware and software to produce and prove a self-drive Bell articulated dump truck which has been operating on several sites on the west coast in the USA.
SafeAI specialises in retrofitting machines with autonomous technology and can upgrade existing equipment, regardless of the manufacturer or vehicle type.
SafeAI has partnered with MACA (now part of Thiess) to create their first autonomous vehicle in Australia – a 180-ton Hitachi haul truck. They also collaborated with Obayashi Corp to convert a 45-ton Caterpillar 725 articulated dump truck into the world’s first electric and autonomous heavy truck.
Xtonomy offers AHS for mining and industrial applications which is OEM-agnostic and interoperable for true autonomy, offering robust radar-only perception for GNSS-denied and rough environments.
Their AHS includes a traffic management system for multi-truck operation, which optimises dispatch and keeps operation safe even in an unstructured area without fixed routes. The supervision dashboard provides detailed information on the state of the autonomous haulage system, operational insights for monitoring and safety purposes, and a tool for route and map editing.
Eacon is focusing on autonomous haulage solutions using advanced AI technology which deeply integrates self-driving technology with on-site operational requirements.
They already have a number of large-scale implementations in play. The most relevant is a fleet of twenty, 60t electric autonomous trucks at the Fushan limestone quarry (cement industry) of Shandong Honghe Baili Mining with a further twenty trucks planned by the end of 2023.
Interestingly, Eacon began commissioning its autonomous equipment in February 2023 and achieved ‘multi-fleet’ self-driving haulage without safety drivers on board in just two months – this is a remarkable achievement. If you have the time, do a web search for Electric AHS Vlog: one day of autonomous haulage operation – it is an interesting look at what is possible right now.
Other trials (results unknown) are the Steer Tech trials in Romarheim’s stone quarry in Osterfjord (Norway) and Jaybridge Robotics trials with Luck Stone in the US (results also unknown). •
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