In recent decades, mining has undergone a sea change, making use of innovative technologies such as robotics, AI, smart sensors, and the Industrial Internet of Things.
The modern mine is an ecosystem where technological innovation is a central element, making it safer, more efficient, and more productive than the mines of previous centuries or decades.
One major trend within the mining industry is the automation of equipment and processes, with technologies such as robotics providing enhanced autonomous capabilities. This article will discuss the use of robots in autonomous haulage systems.
Toward the Autonomous Mine
Mining has long been the bedrock of many associated industries which rely on extracted resources such as iron ore, copper ore, rare earth metals, and coal. However, throughout its history, mining has been an extremely labor and cost-intensive endeavor.
Mining is a dangerous activity, with several well-publicized disasters over the history of the industry causing huge loss of life, impacts on output and the economic viability of operations, and the loss of key equipment and resources. Furthermore, mining is an incredibly environmentally damaging activity.
Removing workers from dangerous environments found in surface and deep underground mines improves safety, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency. Automating processes that have traditionally been carried out by humans is made possible by the application of several technologies, especially robots.
Robots are able to work around the clock in environments that would otherwise place the lives of miners in danger, automating dangerous and menial tasks and allowing workers to concentrate on more value-added tasks. Due to their ability to work 24/7 without a break, robots can significantly improve the economic output of mines.
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Autonomous Hauling Systems: Improving Mining Safety
Haulage trucks are essential for removing mined resources for further processing. However, their use is extremely dangerous: most fatalities and accidents in mines occur when working with vehicles. Mine safety has improved over time due to new technologies and regulations, but fatal accidents unfortunately still occur.
Studies have demonstrated that interaction between human workers and vehicles is a considerable threat to safety, with one paper finding that 11% of the total fatalities in US mines between 2000 and 2012 involved trucks. Furthermore, 57% of severe injuries were associated with vehicles.
Increasing adoption of automated haulage systems (AHS) is a key trend in the mining industry currently, with numerous companies increasingly employing fleets of autonomous trucks, loaders, and trains. Many of these vehicles are in the testing phase, but autonomous systems are increasingly becoming available.
Autonomous robotic haulage trucks navigate a network of haul roads in mines and automatically load and dump ores, without the need for human intervention. Technologies, including smart sensors and AI, allow these vehicles to operate safely, detecting any personnel, mining vehicles, and equipment in their vicinity.
Companies Working Within this Robotics Space
Several companies have developed robotic systems for autonomous haulage. Sandvik and Volvo were early adopters of the technology, providing proof-of-concept vehicles that laid the groundwork for further development in the space.
In 2016, Volvo tested an autonomous truck at Sweden’s Kristineberg mine. The truck traveled underground for seven kilometers without a human driver. Sandvik demonstrated that an autonomous 38-tonne loader could successfully maneuver through a glass maze in 2018.
Komatsu Mining, an early trailblazer in autonomous mining with the development of field management software in 1990, has developed an autonomous haulage truck with no cabin, a design that optimizes load distribution and does not distinguish between forward or reverse.
Trials of Komatsu’s autonomous systems began in 2008 in partnership with Rio Tinto. Controls, wireless networking, and obstacle detection are standard in models such as the 930E used by Rio Tinto, but they still look like conventional trucks, complete with cabins.
The cabin-free design means that weight is better distributed across all four wheels. Moreover, without a human driver, the system can move both forward and backward without the need for maneuvers such as three-point turns, significantly enhancing productivity and reducing tire wear and tear.
AutoMine for Trucks is an autonomous ramp haulage solution from Sandvik for underground mines. Smart handover technology enables real-time switching between underground and surface navigation for autonomous trucks. Volvo is currently working on the self-driving FMX truck in collaboration with Saab.
Scania is collaborating with Rio Tinto to develop next-generation autonomous trucks. Hitachi’s AHS solutions leverage Wenco’s fleet management system and its Smart Mining Truck System. Caterpillar are working with BHP and FMG to implement autonomous solutions.
Pronto is another company that provides innovative autonomous systems. Software solutions provided by Pronto include fleet location and performance monitoring, source and destination selection, access control, and individual truck metrics. Pronto joins a growing list of company names in the AHS space.
Automation is central to the future of mining, offering enhanced safety, cost-effectiveness, and productivity. Robots are playing a key role in this trend and their implementation in automated haulage systems is accelerating, with multiple companies demonstrating the technology’s suitability for the future mine.
Recent advances in industries such as mining demonstrate the key role robotics is playing in the 21st century as companies seek to overcome the challenges they currently face. In combination with solutions such as AI, machine learning, smart sensors, and IoT, the future of robotics in mining is an intriguing one.
References and Further Reading
Future Bridge (2022) Autonomous Haulage Systems – The Future of Mining Operations [Online] futurebridge.com. Available at: https://www.futurebridge.com/industry/perspectives-industrial-manufacturing/autonomous-haulage-systems-the-future-of-mining-operations/
Robotics 24/7 (2023) Pronto Showing Autonomous Haulage System at ConExpo-Con/AGG 2023 [Online] robotics247.com. Available at: https://www.robotics247.com/article/pronto_showing_autonomous_haulage_system_at_conexpo_con_agg_2023/autonomy
Casey, J.P (2016) Autonomous mining: the challenges of independently minded vehicles [Online] mining-technology.com. Available at: https://www.mining-technology.com/features/autonomous-mining-the-challenges-of-independently-minded-vehicles/
Mining Technology (2021) Autonomous haulage systems for mining industry: Leading manufacturers [Online] mining-technology.com. Available at: https://www.mining-technology.com/features/autonomous-haulage-systems/
New Atlas (2016) Komatsu's robotic mining truck completely dumps the driver [Online] newatlas.com. Available at: https://newatlas.com/komatsu-autonomous-truck-mining/45627/