Advancements in remote-controlled and autonomous mining are catching the interest of more companies than ever before. Driverless trucks, loaders, and even underground drills promise improved safety, less waste, and greater productivity.
For many operations, the initial cost of remote-controlled or autonomous mining vehicles is more than offset by the savings in hiring, training, housing, and caring for fewer human workers.
Humans Are Expensive
Humans are expensive. Each worker has to be hired and trained. In remote locations, workers must be housed, fed, and provided with off-duty activities, all at company expense. Companies have to go to great lengths and expense to ensure each employee's safety.
In boom times, workforce turnover and the need for higher wages to retain staff become major expenses. For example, during the last commodities boom, a high school dropout in Western Australia could easily make $200,000 a year running underground drills, and had his choice of jobs.
The Future Is Now
With advances in remote-controlled and semi-autonomous mining, the employee can control multiple trucks or loaders at one time, in air-conditioned comfort. Shift changes are as easy as one person getting out of a chair and another one sitting down. With no need for the operator to drive to a staging point so another person can take over, the trucks have no downtime between shifts.
Research into autonomous mining has been taking place for years. For example, in 2013, AngloGold Ashanti field-tested a remote-control deep earth driller. Their Tau Tona gold mine in South Africa is the world's deepest gold mine, extending more than 2 miles underground. The natural temperature of the rocks that far down is 140°F, requiring extensive cooling systems to bring the heat down to a bearable level. The drill stays in the shaft 24/7, while the operator is safe at the surface.
Rio Tinto has been a world leader in autonomous mining. The company now controls its sprawling mining operations in Western Australia from a control room in Perth. In addition to its fleet of driverless trucks, Rio's "Mine of the Future" program remotely controls 15 mines, four ports, and 1,700 km of rail lines with 180 locomotives and 11,000 ore cars. Their Automated Drilling System (ADS) in presently being rolled out to mines throughout the area.
New Advances in Autonomous Mining
Caterpillar is making great strides towards moving its business into the field of remote-controlled and autonomous mining. Chief Engineer Michael Murphy notes that not only is productivity increased, employee safety is much greater. A remote driver is far from hazardous conditions, while the machine can still work unimpeded. Caterpillar's system includes safety measures that stop the vehicle while in autonomous operation if a human enters the operational area.
Caterpillar isn't the only ones embracing the future. Komatsu touts its autonomous trucks and loaders as the solution for remote or hazardous locations. Volvo has its own heavy equipment automation program.
Australian Mineral Resources has developed an automated ore train system whose tracks are laid on elevated supports. This minimizes expenses and environmental disruption, and also allows the tracks to be removed and relocated elsewhere when the ore body is exhausted.
What Happens When Humans and Machines Mix?
Completely automating a mine is not something that is done all at once. Normal operations, with all the humans it requires, continue on while automated systems are put into place. A wreck between a giant automated truck and a manned water truck at a BHP Billiton iron mine shows how procedures are not always bug-free in implementation.
The autonomous truck was traveling at a speed where it could not react to the water truck in time to avoid a collision. The driver of the water truck was unaware that the big truck was about to turn across his path and also was unable to brake in time. (There were no signs indicating the side road existed, or the fact that it was used as a turnaround by the robot trucks.) Luckily, the driver suffered only minor injuries.
(notice the staircase across the front for cab access)
Rise of the (Milking) Machines
In what is probably the industry most removed from heavy mining, autonomous machines are invading dairy farms. The system uses tags to track the cows, and lets them be milk themselves by walking into the automated milking machine whenever they are ready. This not only removes a tedious and lengthy job for the dairy farmer, it contributes to the cows' health and well-being. (No one likes standing in line for hours, even cows.) If a bunch of cows decide to be milked at the same time, the system can handle 90 cows an hour.
Farmers are already using GPS-enabled autonomous sprayers on their crops, but automated harvesters are also in the works.
Google's Late To The Party
So, when you see news about Google or GM or whoever working on driverless cars, remember that they are treading a path already well-worn by industry.
The opinions and forecasts herein are provided solely for informational purposes, and should not be used or construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell any product