The opportunity to magnify current material cost and safety benefits of autonomous mining equipment ownership will drive miners to expand the use of the technology in their fleets, according to the CEO of Auto-mate. Daniel Poller says bulldozer automation is just one area now being studied more closely by mining and contracting companies given the machine’s wide range of high-value uses.
Auto-mate, working with Australian logistics leader Bis Industries to bring cutting-edge Israeli mobile equipment automation technology to mines, is growing its presence in Western Australia where Poller sees extensive use of autonomous heavy haul trucks and production drills being extended to other primary operating machines as well as ancillary fleet such as water carts, utilities and dozers.
Auto-mate’s technology partner, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), has been developing advanced air, sea and land robotic and autonomous vehicle technologies over the past four decades. It has demonstrated the effectiveness of sophisticated dozer automation technology outside of mining.
“Dozers, by machine population, play a massive role in the mining industry – one that is curiously often overlooked – and indications from environmental experts and consultants are that their use in rehabilitation applications, for example, is only going to increase in future,” Poller says.
“As socio-economic expectations and pressures around mining continue to increase mines are going to have to do more rehab, not less, which is one of a number of dozer uses gaining currency. Waste and ore movement applications are there, too, but they’re not as pervasive as they’re likely to be in future.
“The economic benefits of moving from remote control to autonomous dozers are being assessed more in the industry.
“Because we do have technology developed already for dozers, that’s something we can transfer from IAI to the mining industry. There are adaptations needed for mining, of course, but a dozer is a dozer and dozer operation is similar across the construction, infrastructure, mining and other industries. The missions don’t change that much.”
A US mining and construction technology investment firm, Foundamental, says fully autonomous vehicles make up less than 1% of the total mining and construction equipment sold worldwide. However, given 2.5% per annum global equipment sales growth and “exponential growth in adoption of fully autonomous vehicles”, the level of market penetration could double in the short term.
“Fully autonomous sites are already common place in Western Australia – [a market estimated to be] capturing 75% of global demand for autonomous trucks – with some other large-scale activities in South America,” Foundamental said last year.
“While autonomous hauling system implementation would be on average US$13 million at a site with 10 trucks and 15 ancillary vehicles, the total benefits are calculated to be $19 million. This indicates that investment into autonomous technology ultimately pays off. It’s increasing overall productivity of the site and addressing the skills shortage that plagues the industry.”
The firm’s basic analysis of cost benefits associated with typical autonomous operations in WA is in line with results of other studies, with higher levels of reporting transparency also anticipated as the market matures. This could increase investor pressure on mining companies to make better capital investment decisions.
Poller says healthy competitive tension is also stimulating new activity.
“We still see Australia, and in particular WA, leading the way when it comes to automation and deployment speed,” he says.
“I think there are three reasons. Number one, the safety attitude and responsibility of the miners in Australia is still number one in the world. No-one has that responsibility and safety attitude of the miners in Australia, and that right away creates a huge push towards automation and moving people away and getting people out of the cabin, in whichever application.
“Number two is going to be availability of labour. And there I’m not even talking about cost – it’s just actually getting labour and people. Even if today people are still available the miners are thinking ahead and saying, wait a second, we’re already having pressure today; I need to prepare for what’s going to happen 4-5 years from now. If I’m planning to expand my mine, where is my labour going to come from?
“So we’re seeing a lot of push on labour availability overall.
“And I think thirdly, the miners have seen automation working in WA more than in any other place. So I think there is that experience of the benefits that can be had from automation which leaves people open to trying it in other applications.”
Australia has also been a leader in adopting remote and tele-remote-controlled machines in mines, introducing the first tele-operated underground mine loaders in the 1990s and becoming a big user of tele-operated drills and other equipment. Remote-controlled dozers have been used to rip super-hard caprock in WA bauxite mines, manage stockpiles and waste dumps, clear leach pads and clean up under open-pit highwalls. Progression from remote control to semi-automated operation and then full automation is a path already travelled by a number of local mine operators and contractors.
Elsewhere, autonomous dozers are impacting operations in the mining, construction, military and other arenas.
According to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers in the US, excavation and site preparation work is being completed by autonomous or semi-autonomous bulldozers at building sites. The machines can ready a jobsite with the help of a human programmer “to exact specifications”. One building project manager says autonomous dozers have been used to “finish-grade hundreds of pads” and helped to offset skilled labour shortages. Automated machines used less fuel while moving dirt more efficiently and with reduced wear and tear on the equipment. “By automating some tasks, skilled workers can work on more complex tasks or move to areas where they are needed most,” an Association of Equipment Manufacturers spokesperson says.
“Our blade control algorithms are more advanced than what’s available on the market”
Auto-mate has ‘open-source’ technology that can be used to automate a range of machines and vehicles.
“The majority of dozer tech today is tele-operations, which we can do as well,” Poller says.
“With autonomous dozer systems the uniqueness for us is really the algorithms around the blade control. Our blade control algorithms are more advanced than what’s available on the market.
“For certain applications – not for every application – that will have some criticality. Of course, we need to demonstrate that in the mining industry and earn our credibility.”
Major Japanese construction and mining equipment manufacturer Komatsu introduced the world’s first dozer with fully automatic blade control in 2013. US-based Caterpillar says its dozer automation technologies “increase accuracy and drive efficiency”.
The two giant rivals have supplied most of the autonomous dump trucks working in WA and have the largest dozer fleets working in Australia.
Poller says Auto-mate can work directly with asset owners to automate existing and new equipment, and also partner with service providers that can provide leases or another party to provide specialised services based around the use of autonomous dozers and other machines.
“If, for example, a mining company wanted to look at autonomous dozing for rehab in more of a contractual way, as opposed to being a direct owner of autonomy, that’s something with Bis that could be on the table – something we could look at it with Bis becoming the contractor and we would be the provider of technology,” he says.
Leading Australian law firm MinterEllison says while the roll-out of automated on-road vehicles in Australia has slowed “due to the safety and regulatory challenges of operating in these complex environments” it still sees a tipping point coming “in the next few years” that could be followed by rapid adoption of higher levels of automated vehicles on the country’s roads.
Meanwhile, “mining and agriculture can continue to lead the way in Australia”, MinterEllison says.
“The increased uptake of automation in mining presents challenges for government as legislative and regulatory regimes seek to appropriately adapt to new technology,” it says.
Other states and territories are following WA’s lead with guidelines for the use of autonomous mobile mining plant after WA led the industry worldwide with its code of practice for mobile autonomous mining published by Resources Safety in 2015, along with various guidelines for autonomous systems published by the Global Mining Guidelines Group.
“Australian mining and agricultural companies have a proud history of innovation and technology adoption. To remain globally competitive, this needs to continue,” the law firm says.
Poller says while regulation is not yet forcing miners’ hands on automation, he is encouraged to see change occurring due to a range of other factors.
“I have seen the move by the mining companies without regulatory pressure to go towards a safer operation and push to get people out of the dozer cabins,” he says.
“So even without the regulatory push the mining companies are being very responsible and mature in actually improving personnel health and safety.
“The additional value we’re trying to push going from tele-operation to autonomous is really focused on two areas.
“One is where the machine might be able to do things better than a human – for example, where ground-sensing technology and advanced blade control can produce better outcomes, in real time, than the person sitting up in the dozer or someone controlling the machine from a distance.
“And secondly, there are situations that offer the ability to leverage one person to keep multiple dozers operating at once.”
A call at the recent international Diggers and Dealers mining conference at Kalgoorlie in WA for delegates to submit their autonomous dozing application suggestions might not have been expected to draw a big response at what is ostensibly an investment forum.
However, Auto-mate Marketing and Communications Manager Pips Woodhouse says the industry obviously has caught the automation bug, the response was very encouraging.”
With over two centuries of combined experience from their joint venture partners Bis and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Auto-mate is proud to deliver an industry disruptor in mining automation.
Written by INVESTMETS editor, Richard Roberts.