Graphic of an autonomous car

Thinking

Zero-entry autonomous mining: Where’s my hoverboard, Marty?

Recall the famous late ‘80’s movie, Back to the Future II, where Marty McFly travelled in Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine to the year 2015.

Hoverboards and hovercars were the normal modes of personal transportation and at the time of its release, the movie ignited our excitement in seeing automation technology become mainstream.

Well 2015 has come and gone, and the closest we got to Marty’s automated hoverboard were the sorts of flyboards for leisure – while they looked fun, were they actually practical?

Why hasn’t automation for transportation taken off to a McFlying start? Not just for personal use but for application in industrial settings as well. The closest the mining industry has come to using ‘Back to the Future’ transportation technology is the odd robot or two, and an array of drones for inspection purposes. So, where’s my hoverboard Marty?

There is great potential in the mining industry to see zero-entry autonomous mining in our lifetime and experience the benefits it could provide. Zero-entry mining refers to not having any people located in the mining area where the autonomous equipment is operating. The size of an autonomous operating zone can vary from site to site, ranging between one combined load and dump area to encompassing the entire mining operation.

A fast start but slow take-off

In 2005, the use of autonomous equipment by the global mining industry was off to a flying start with the likes of Codelco, Rio Tinto and BHP leading the charge with conversion programs for haulage and drilling deployments. But this fast start has been slow to take-off across the entire industry. 

While these pioneering companies are experimenting with new technology, such as intelligent sensors, decision analytics, remote operations and end-to-end process integration and automation, that’s where the issue lies: It makes for a hard decision to invest in emerging technology when it’s for experimentation and there are supply and profit risks at stake. 

In addition, the current approach is to ‘bolt on’ automation to equipment originally designed to be operated by personnel. One notable deviation to this approach was during MINExpo 2016 where Komatsu released its next generation autonomous haul truck that was designed without a cab. This was a breakthrough in haul truck design maximising the advantages of unmanned operation. Whilst industry eagerly awaits the commercial release of the Komatsu cab-less vehicle the only other original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that appears to have progressed down a similar cab-less design path for haulage fleet is Scania, when in September 2019 they announced a new cab-less autonomous concept truck.

There are piecemeal developments on mobile ancillary fleets like push dozers, wheel loaders and excavators that support integrated autonomous operation. But, it’s impossible for them to fit within the context of a zero-entry mining without the automation of the corresponding equipment they’re intended to integrate with. 

Infographic of autonomous eco-systems

Infographic of autonomous eco-systems

What is needed in mining, and what has often been developed in other industries, is an open interoperable ‘plug and play’ digital environment that allows for easy adoption of new sensors and new decision support applications, together with the easy orchestration of operational processes involving an increased degree of automation. 

A recent report suggests that digital automation technologies could add more than A$50 billion in value to the mining industry by 2030, boosting its value added by as much as 58 per cent. 

The current state of play

The mining industry is proceeding with the automation it can do, rather than the automation it would prefer to do. The development of autonomous technology has fallen to the larger OEMs in partnership with major mining companies. That’s why we’ve seen automation mainly in the haulage and drill fleet areas.

The full benefit from autonomy will not arrive until there are no people in autonomous operating zones. To create zero-entry mining, there must be systematic coordination of all mining in a smart, integrated and totally interoperable ecosystem. This means industry-wider collaboration between OEM’s, third-party suppliers, miners and data-system vendors, to create the equipment, hardware and software.

Zero-entry mining is also an enabler to achieve a zero emissions footprint across the resources sector, combining autonomous technologies, next generation mine design opportunities, and leveraging future fuels such as hydrogen.  

Aurecon’s Hydrogen for Transport report, for the National Hydrogen Strategy Taskforce (Department of Industry, Innovation and Science), presents the prospective Australian use cases for using hydrogen in transport.

Golden opportunities with automation

When automation enables zero-entry mining, significant new value will be unlocked through both reduction of waste and the increase in productivity.

There’s no doubt the mining industry faces some significant challenges. The increasing demand for minerals and metals coupled with the pressure to increase output cost-effectively, puts many mining operations in a tough spot.

Adopting semi- or fully-autonomous mining automation can provide golden opportunities for miners to become more efficient, boost production and cut costs while making the work environment safer.

  • Safety: All machines are self-regulated or remote controlled from off-site safe locations. In the zero-entry mine there are no people on the frontline which immediately reduces injury incidents.
  • Productivity improvements: Increasing the utilisation of equipment makes for longer and more consistent hours of productivity. There are no shift, bathroom or crib breaks required by autonomous equipment.
  • Cost efficiencies: Operating costs are reduced with a lower position on the cost curve through increased productivity, more consistent machine operation, longer tyre life, lower machine wear and lower maintenance costs.
  • Environmental outcome improvements: One of the biggest savings is the elimination of waste. The wall angles in open pits could be steepened and roads/ramps made narrower, reducing the waste and strip ratios. This is where next generation mine design opportunity exists.

Today, the health and safety benefits of removing people from the mine operating environment and transitioning them to overseeing operations and undertaking more highly skilled roles has become a heightened imperative and opportunity due to COVID-19.

There are reports from miners and OEMs that the rollout of autonomous haulage systems alone are improving productivity by up to 30 per cent at mine sites.

Whilst productivity improvements and cost efficiencies such as reducing load and haul unit costs and extending tyre life are real benefits, the magnitude of those varies between industry players. The significant value of autonomous operations will be realised through continuous operations enabled through zero-entry mining.

Infographic on reducing load and haul unit costs and extending tyre life

Infographic on reducing load and haul unit costs and extending tyre life

Source: Autonomous haulage system report, Komatsu

Going back to future is not without its challenges

We need to remember that zero-entry mining is a vision – but an important one. There will still be plenty of technical challenges to overcome; equipment interoperability constraints, centralised autonomous equipment decisions, and overreliance on ubiquitous communications networks. There are also the social challenges to overcome, particularly in remote communities, in which the miners operate.

There is also currently a lack of standards across the industry for mining automation. To overcome these challenges requires a conjunction between state and federal governments, industry bodies and industry companies to map out a research and trial agenda of projects to address these challenges.

What about people?

Today, the mining sector is one of Australia’s biggest employers. It’s a natural question to ask how semi- or fully-autonomous automation in mines might affect jobs. We know that jobs will still be required, but the mix of skills is still unknown. 

Achieving operational efficiency and productivity from autonomous operation will require a different skill set compared to those of traditionally manned equipment.

This could be an opportunity for upskilling. Mining companies may also take the opportunity to change the location of their workers to remotely operate equipment from major cities opting for more family friendly rosters. Mining companies need to keep a focus on the long-term flow-on effects as a source of jobs, particularly in the remote communities they operate in.

Ultimately, zero-entry mining will bring about the re-design of jobs and personnel structure in completely different ways.

How far into the future?

The belief exists that zero-entry autonomous mining is achievable. Indeed, there is a groundswell of support around the concept, and some companies are expanding their operations at the moment. How long until we see autonomous mining as mainstream operation? 

As the industry looks further into the future for tomorrow’s opportunities, the strategic alignment that zero-entry mining provides to gain improvements and efficiencies far outweighs the challenges.

Perhaps there’s a case to establish an industry led consortium to coordinate and accelerate the development efforts of all the mobile equipment that support a fully autonomous zero-entry mining eco-system. It’s certainly something worth considering as an industry.

With the time clock moving closer to midnight, we need to jump back into the DeLorean and allow that flash of lightning to propel us into the future where zero-entry mining is normal practice. The opportunities are there, and it’s our time to take a hold of them and alter the boundaries of what is possible within the mining industry.

This thinking paper is part of a collection of insights and expertise from Aurecon as it explores leading through and beyond the COVID-19 disruption. Explore our insights here.


About the author

Graeme Mitchell is Aurecon’s Autonomous Technology Director. He leads the acceleration of autonomous technology and helps clients transition faster to ‘zero-entry mining’ operations.

Graeme’s experience leading the development of autonomous mining systems and technology with a Tier 1 mining company both in Australia and US, means he knows first-hand the collaboration and integration required if mining companies are to transition to zero-entry mining. 

He is experienced in developing autonomous mining roadmaps and business cases for new autonomous mining initiatives focused on key value drivers of improvements in safety, productivity and a reduction in overall operating costs.

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