Ukwazi Views

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Autonomous Vehicles – Science fiction or current mining reality?

Ukwazi’s head of mining in the Northern Cape, Jaco Mans, has first-hand experience of conducting studies for companies who wish to use autonomous vehicles underground.

Mans states, “The mine of the future is digitally connected from pit to port, utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic mining systems (RMS). In this scenario, the use of autonomous vehicles is critical to ensuring lower production costs, while utilising renewable energy sources is a key alternative to diesel. There is no doubt that mines of the future will have minimal environmental footprints, where employees manage and control mining activities from a remote location or control room environment.”

Autonomous vehicles have complex on board computer system programmes for machine learning, that send pivotal data to remote control rooms. This includes information about the equipment’s condition and vehicle performance, as well as stats from GPS navigation and sensor systems. These assist the vehicle in avoiding collisions with obstacles or people and allows it to operate without a driver in a cab on board.

Back to the future… or the present?

While we haven’t quite gotten to flying cars yet (although you can hire one in Dubai), the fact is autonomous vehicles already exist and are being used successfully across the mining sector. Anglo American, for example, has developed a 290t haul truck that is powered by a lithium-ion battery system, set to be tested at Mogalakwena Platinum Mine in Limpopo. In addition to fuel cell electric vehicles, Anglo is also looking at developing hydrogen fuelled transport. Mining company, Rio Tinto, is the globe’s largest owner and operator of autonomous trucks, moving over a billion tons of ore at its Pilbara site in Western Australia. BHP too, has been using the technology at its Australia operations (since 2017), while Resolute Mining, in partnership with Sandvik, is hoping its gold mine in Mali will be 100% automated in the near future. Vale has also experimented with these vehicles at its Brucutu iron ore mine in Brazil (according to the company using 13 driverless trucks, has resulted in Vale improving ore transport by 26%, and reducing fuel and maintenance costs by 10%.)

Mining services consultancy, Ukwazi, has found that there are a number of important factors driving this industry development. Namely, the availability of new technology and fleet options, health and safety requirements and the need for mining companies to reduce their carbon footprints and operate in deeper and more remote environments.

Going it alone

Before pushing on the accelerator, consider the following success factors:

SMART goals – Replacing diesel vehicles with autonomous vehicles (by a specific date) needs to be a strategic business priority, expressed by the CEO or senior leadership team.

Future-fit leaders – Local mine leadership and management teams who are prepared to experiment and build the mine of the future, are essential. What’s more, the organisational culture instilled by leaders should also promote innovation.

Informed decision making – A local decision needs to be made to deploy autonomous vehicles in an appropriate operational environment.
The right terrain – A detailed mine plan, and an accurate survey and mine layout that is conducive to the use of autonomous vehicles either underground or open pit, are non-negotiables.

Close collaboration – Working together with OEM/equipment suppliers such as Sandvik, Caterpillar, Komatsu or Volvo will ensure that the appropriate fleet and technology is selected for each mine. Bear in mind, that traditional equipment selection criteria remain relevant and could still be useful.
Alignment of incentives and benefits – Making sure that implementation benefits are clear to all stakeholders (from investors to employees) is critical: in general, autonomous vehicles improve productivity, reduce costs and ventilation requirements, improving health and safety performance; particularly for underground operations.

Data, data and data – collating data analytics and having visual control room displays will improve real time decision making and enhance the company’s ability to diagnose operational defects and bottlenecks.

It’s a journey – Autonomous vehicle operations need careful planning, testing and a phased roll-out in order to be successful, rather than a big bang approach. A shift in mindset is required as well as a different way of working – hence, change management will be a vital project component.

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