Integrating Autonomous/Automated Mining Equipment Throughout the Life of Mine Plan

 

Autonomous vs. Automated Mining Equipment

A point of confusion as technology advances in the autonomous/automated technology space is what is the difference between the two? 

In general, the difference between autonomous and automated relates to the level of human intervention. Completely autonomous mining equipment consists of minimal human control and can be considered far more independent than an automated mining system.  

In automated systems, the operator still has overall control of the piece of machinery but is usually done remotely from a central control room (CAT, 2022). Examples of automated mining technology already being implemented on mine projects include drilling/blasting automation, obstacle detection and avoidance systems, automated haul trucks, operator assist technology, drones and remotely controlled trains and other vehicles. These pieces of mining equipment are largely controlled by a remote operator, making them automated and not fully autonomous.  

In autonomous mining technology, human level control is completely removed from the picture. The computer installed in the machine is responsible for all the defined tasks, safety decisions, and functions (CAT, 2022).  

Fully autonomous technology is still limited at mine sites as some level of human control and monitoring is still widely preferred in the industry. 

The Shift Towards Autonomous/Automated Mining

Widespread advancement in technology and an increased demand for raw material has opened the door for mining companies to start seriously exploring the risks, opportunities, and economic advantages from using autonomous and or automated mining equipment throughout operational mine sites. 

One of the driving factors behind the increased demand for raw material is economies, industries, and policies working to achieve collective climate goals through sustainable energy technologies. The movement toward sustainable and clean energy technology requires raw minerals and metals such as copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt (IEA, 2022).  

As sustainable energy technology becomes more widespread, demand for raw mineral and metals will continue to increase as well. Demand for raw mineral and metals could increase 6 times by 2040 (IEA, 2022).  

This increase in demand, means there will be an equal need to increase supply. For the mining industry, this means increasing the speed to which minerals and metals are extracted and finding opportunities to increase the life of mine of operational sites. To help with the increase in demand, mine operators are exploring the transition to autonomous/automated mining equipment. Active mines across the globe have already implemented some level of autonomous and or automated mining equipment. 

Additionally, mine operators are considering autonomous/automated mining equipment as a means of reducing carbon emissions to help align with sustainable mining practices and help achieve world climate goals. For example, at Boliden’s Kevitsa mine in Finland, automated mining equipment was implemented into their operations which will result in a 9% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the mine’s lifetime (Boliden, 2022).  

Both active and future mine projects will need to find opportunities to integrate autonomous/automated mining equipment into their life of mine plans. Developing and integrating plans for autonomous/automated mining early in the mine lifecycle will open the door to many opportunities and benefits.  

The Benefits of Autonomous/Automated Mining 

Autonomous mining equipment can carry significant benefits for mine operators willing to invest in the transition. At an operational level, the two most significant benefits autonomous mining equipment can carry is improved health and safety, and an increased output of minerals and metals being extracted. If properly integrated into life of mine plans early in the mine lifecycle, the following benefits could be realized quickly.  

Improved Safety 

Mine operators place the utmost importance on health and safety. By introducing autonomous/automated technologies to mining operations, any potential risk to mining personnel is lowered. For example, automated haul trucks reduce the need for mine personnel, specifically haul truck drivers, to enter dangerous areas of a mine site where there are potential risks such as explosions and rock falls. 

As with any industrial vehicle, there is an inherent risk to both the driver and to personnel working alongside the vehicle. Autonomous/automated haul trucks reduce the need for a driver directly in the cockpit. Trucks can be controlled from the safety of a central control location, reducing the potential of drivers injuring themselves in accidents.  

An improvement in health and safety can have widespread effects outside site operations as well. Improved safety measures create an industry that’s more appealing to more of the workforce. It becomes easier to find and attract skilled employees to the mining industry. Not only will improved health and safety make it easier to find skilled employees, but it will also attract a more diverse workforce of different backgrounds, races, and genders.  

Increased Outputs and Reduced Mechanical/Equipment Costs

Autonomous/Automated mining equipment such as haul trucks, can operate more consistently, and for longer periods of time. Automated technologies create opportunities for tighter truck exchanges and shorter shift changes leading to less downtime and more productivity. Shift changes in a control room is much easier to facilitate then shift changes on-site. Automated technologies complete tasks at a more controlled and monitored level, leading to less maintenance on equipment. This allows for a great number of trucks to operate at any given time (Viewpoint, 2022).  

Spending on mining equipment related to general wear and tear, maintenance, and fuel consumption is reduced. With automation, mine operators can more precisely monitor fuel consumption and equipment use, which results in decreased and more timely maintenance. 

In 2017 Rio Tinto estimated that automated haul trucks operated 700 hours more than conventional haul trucks (Price, 2019, p. 608). Similarly, Vale estimated that automated haul trucks on their Brucutu project lowered maintenance costs by 10%, fuel consumption costs by more than 10%, and the wear and tear on truck tires was lowered by 25% (Price, 2019, p. 608). 

Current Mining Projects Using Autonomous Technology 

Autonomous/automated mining technology is already being implemented on projects across the globe.  

Rio Tinto have implemented over 130 autonomous haul trucks into their iron ore operations. According to Rio Tinto, these autonomous haul trucks have already operated 700 hours more than standard, conventional haul trucks (Rio Tinto, 2022). 

In the Pilbara region in Western Australia, BHP will begin operating a fleet of autonomous haul trucks at the South Flank mine in June 2022. By September 2023, they will have over 40 autonomous haul trucks in operation, and an additional 180 other autonomous mining equipment from dozers to water trucks (BHP, 2022).  

At the Mina Quebrada Blanca in the Tarapaca Region of Chile, Teck Resources has also implemented autonomous haul systems. Teck is planning to start this project with a mixed fleet of traditional and autonomous haul trucks but has a 5-year plan to transition into a fully autonomous fleet of haul trucks. Teck is also offering training opportunities for employees to learn about autonomous haulage systems to provide opportunity for all employees in the future of operations (Teck, 2022).  

How Okane Can Help Integrate Autonomous/Automated Mining Strategies into Life of Mine Plans

As the mining industry continues to embrace new technologies, it will become of greater importance that mine operators find opportunities to integrate autonomous/automated mining equipment into operations. Okane is a leading expert in integrated mine planning, and our team of engineers with diversified skillsets and expertise can help.  

We can conduct cost and benefit analyses on behalf of our clients to help determine if autonomous mining is a beneficial strategy for future and current operations. We can conduct trade-off studies that consider existing equipment being used on-site and identify autonomous and or automated mining alternatives that could increase the life of mine, improve health and safety, and increase outputs. 

Our team can help identify opportunities to integrate autonomous mining technology into everyday operations to achieve the highest value life of mine plan 

 

References 

BHP. (2022, April 27). South Flank Autonomous Haulage Rolls Out. https://www.bhp.com/news/articles/2022/01/south-flank-autonomous-haulage-rolls-out 

Boliden. (2022, May 10). Boliden’s Role in Climate Change. https://www.boliden.com/sustainability/our-responsibilities/climate 

CAT. (2022, May 10). Automation and Autonomy: What’s the Difference? https://www.cat.com/en_US/articles/ci-articles/automation-autonomy-whats-the-difference.html 

International Energy Association. (2021, May 5). Clean Energy Deman for Critical Minerals Set to Soar as the World Pursues Net Zero Goals. https://www.iea.org/news/clean-energy-demand-for-critical-minerals-set-to-soar-as-the-world-pursues-net-zero-goals 

Price, R. (2019, July). Autonomous Haulage Technologies in Iron Ore. Perth, WA.  

Resolute Mining. (2022, April 27). Syama Fact Sheet. https://www.rml.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Syama-Fact-Sheet.pdf 

Rio Tinto. (2022, April 27). Automation. https://www.riotinto.com/en/about/innovation/automation 

Teck. (2022, May 16). Mine of the Future. https://www.teck.com/news/connect/issue/volume-25,-2019/table-of-contents/qb2–mine–of-the-future 

Viewpoint. (2022, May 11). Command for Hauling. Perspectives on Modern Mining. http://viewpointmining.com/article/cat-autonomous-haulage-system