Why true autonomy is the mining industry’s secret weapon


Autonomy is seen as the mining industry’s next step change

Just as mechanisation once did, it provides unprecedented opportunities for the sector – not just to cope with ever-increasing global demand for raw materials, but to get ahead of the game.

For many years already, mining executives have recognised this by leveraging the first generation of autonomous hauling systems. However, their reliance on GPS waypoints only capable of following one specific path and unreliable signals has resulted in limited commercial gains.

Autonomy’s new frontier, by contrast, is driven by technology that can work in any vehicle or environment and is not dependent on physical infrastructure. It is this that will allow human drivers to be completely removed from mines, unlocking a myriad of benefits, including improved safety, maximised productivity and streamlined efficiency – all of which will see the mining industry’s profit margins soar to new heights.

Autonomy streamlines productivity and increases safety

Downtime and under-utilisation are the biggest silent killers of profitability in the mining world. Under-utilisation of assets may result from the limited coordination among the vehicles and loaders operating in a mine, breaks and breakdowns as well as unplanned downtime resulting from accidents.

Autonomous driving and fleet management systems provide an efficient way to help streamline these operational and productivity kinks. In the case of the former, better coordination and scheduling of mining trucks help to make the overall system more efficient, while in the case of the latter, a reduced role for the driver helps to save costs and improve safety. Together, they enable the optimal use of resources while minimising downtime.

These advanced systems differ from lower-level automation or semi-autonomy in that, with advanced sensor sets and autonomous driving capabilities, they can better perceive and identify obstacles and plan to avoid them. With better perception and planning, as cameras and localisation technologies sense objects far in advance and will consistently avoid them on detection, come fewer accidents, meaning less damage to vehicles and ultimately far less downtime.

These are very real concerns for industry executives. 133 haul truck-related fatalities were recorded in the US between 1995 and 2010 according to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), while estimates for downtime costs can range from anything between $180,000 for a single incident to $10 billion for a year’s worth of incidents. By implementing autonomous software in existing mining vehicles with better sensing and decision-making capabilities, then, the chances of lives being lost due to human error would be greatly reduced.

Resolute’s Syama Underground Mine in Mali, for example, is proof of the transformative impact autonomy can have. According to Kitco, Syama “achieved commercial production at rates greater than 80% of nameplate capacity” in June this year and estimates suggest that the Australian company will go on to produce a quarter of a million ounces of gold per year over a 12-year lifespan. All while human beings were totally out of harm’s way.

Autonomy upskills expertise

Industry experts already have significant concerns about the future mining workforce. For example, Peter Scherrer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation, believes that young people are simply “not interested in working in the raw materials industry”. This is reflected by the fact that European mineral processing graduates represent just 1% of the global total.

And just to meet production demand over the next decade, the data indicates that 87,000 workers will be needed in Canada, 70,000 in Australia and 75,000 in South America. As the most experienced and specialised amongst the workforce continue to retire, the industry’s challenges around attracting the right talent are only going to get harder.

Autonomy forms a key part of the solution to this skills gap. If workers no longer have to drive vehicles, their vital skills can be redeployed elsewhere in roles that are safer and more engaging. As autonomy software is deployed on a wider scale globally, we will see a huge rise in roles such as vehicle maintenance and fleet management. Workers will have the opportunity to upskill and learn about new technologies, while not being required to be a specialist autonomy developer themselves. Accident rates will also plummet, as workers are kept out of harm’s way rather than in the driver’s seat.

These changes will also no doubt encourage a whole new generation of miners to join the workforce, attracted by the safer conditions, global opportunities and chance to work with new technologies.

What’s the best way to implement autonomy?

It’s hard to ignore the benefits that deploying autonomy in the mining sector would bring. Yes, there are some notable cost benefits – opportunities to make efficiency savings and make profits – but making mines a safer and more rewarding place to work will do the industry a lot of good. New graduates and sought-after skilled talent will be attracted into mining roles, helping to beat the skills gap and shape the next generation of technology-led miners.

Deployment isn’t without its own issues, though. A major stumbling block currently standing in the way of mining executives is the proprietary autonomous driving systems produced by truck manufacturers. As an example of the issue, let’s say a new mine opens up in Chile and requires hundreds of dump trucks. A large supplier of dump trucks may only have an annual production output of under a hundred vehicles, meaning that mining companies would have to purchase trucks from different manufacturers and operate a mixed fleet of vehicles.

What that means is that if full autonomy was to be introduced, the type of autonomy systems each truck was operating on would be different. And, according to regulations, miners operating the machinery are required to be in a position to stop any of the automated vehicles remotely at all times. It’s easy to see how the situation could become unsustainable when you consider that miners are also required to operate multiple user interfaces simultaneously.

There is a simple answer to this problem: software. Using Oxbotica’s Universal Autonomy solution for autonomous driving and fleet management, mining companies can deploy their existing mining vehicles but with new added autonomous capabilities, which are not dependent on GPS signals and are less reliant on remote control. There are no requirements for extra physical infrastructure or 5G and vehicles can be deployed universally – in any environment, no matter the terrain or whether it is above or below ground.

It is this that will make our autonomy the mining industry’s secret weapon in the years and decades to come.