The Age of Autonomy

Autonomous mining vehicles, once a figment of science fiction, are now a solid, fully functioning reality at mine sites around the world. Here Juliet Langton speaks to Mitch Torrie, arguably one of the first people to automate industrial vehicles, about the futuristic technology – its technicalities, benefits, challenges and implications for both industry and society.

Autonomy isn’t new – it has existed on factory production lines for decades. It has taken longer, however, for the science-fiction staple of the autonomous vehicle to come within reach. Research into robotic cars began in the 1980s and now, in 2013, consumers are looking forward (with some trepidation) to the first driverless cars, with semi-autonomous cars due to undergo trials on UK roads later this year. However, it is the automation of industrial vehicles that stands to change the world most fundamentally.

As an industry built upon arduous and dangerous human labour – often in remote and inhospitable environments – mining has a greater need than most industries for robots. Yet it is only now that miners are really beginning to use them. When Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE: CAT) first tested autonomous trucks in 1996 at its Tucson proving grounds in Arizona, US, the manufacturing giant decided the world’s mines were not ready for autonomy yet.

Caterpillar’s Japanese rival Komatsu (TSE: 6301.T) introduced the world’s first Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) in January 2008, delivering the large driverless dump trucks to the Gabriela Mistral copper mine of Chilean state-owned mining company, Codelco.

Later that year Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) launched its Mine of the Future programme to find advanced ways of extracting deep minerals while reducing environmental impacts and improving safety. It became the second miner to employ Komatsu’s ‘FrontRunner’ AHS technology, putting five autonomous dump trucks to work at its West Angelas Mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia. Rio now has 15 autonomous trucks operating at its Pilbara mines. It has also invested US$518 million in autonomous trains for its Pilbara Operations rail network.

The past few years have seen other mining companies begin to show an interest in autonomous technology. In Western Australia’s Pilbara region alone, BHP Billiton (ASX: BHP) has committed to operating 12 autonomous haulers at its Jimblebar iron ore mine by the end of 2013 and Fortescue Metals Group (ASX: FMG) has said it is planning to introduce autonomous trucks to its Solomon Mine iron ore mine.

The first to put autonomy on the mine site

As the world’s two largest manufacturers of mining equipment, it is unsurprising that Caterpillar and Komatsu are leading the way in building autonomous mining vehicles. But machines purpose-built for autonomy are not the whole picture, neither were they the first appearance of autonomy on mine sites. In fact, a lesser-known US technology developer called Autonomous Solutions Incorporated (ASI) was automating other manufacturer’s mining vehicles long before Komatsu’s driverless dump trucks touched down in Chile.

Brothers Mitch and Mel Torrie, in a team with four others, began building robots for the military in 1988 in the robotics research lab of Utah State University. So innovative were the systems they made that it wasn’t long before the technology began attracting attention from elsewhere.

“One industry after another approached us… agriculture being one of the first,” says Mitch, now Director of Vehicle Automation at ASI. “Once we started building autonomous systems for agriculture, mining companies saw that the same technology could be applied to their industry. The military had put millions of dollars into the technology, and we leveraged that to develop it for the agricultural and mining industries.”

Mitch, Mel and fellow developer Paul Lewis started up Autonomous Solutions Incorporated in 2000. Work came rolling in quickly, with one of its first jobs being to automate vehicles for US-based John Deere, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural machinery.

It was 2006 – two years before Komatsu launched its AHS – when ASI automated its first mining vehicles. These were a haul truck and a dozer for Phelps Dodge, which now as Freeport McMoRan is one of the world’s largest producers of copper and gold. ASI may not be as widely known as its equipment-manufacturing rivals, but even its earliest projects demonstrate its favour with big industry names.

‘Automation simplified’

Seven years later, ASI has succeeded in automating 50 different kinds of vehicle, including trucks, dozers, drills, excavators, tractors, skid steers and underground speciality vehicles, requiring it to have developed systems for wheeled, tracked and articulated vehicles. These automating systems have gone to customers around the world, particularly those based in the mining centres of South and North America, Africa and Australia.

The company’s slogan is Automation Simplified – but how simple can it be to transform an ordinary vehicle, designed for a human driver, into an autonomous one?

“ASI has developed common building blocks that communicate with our Vehicle Control Unit – VCU – to control a vehicle,” Mitch explains. “These building blocks either:

Talk directly to the OEM machine to control it via CAN, Ethernet or serial;

Supply electrical signals to the OEM controllers to command the vehicle;

Or control hydraulic systems using CAN-controlled hydraulic valves plumbed in parallel to the OEM system to control the vehicle.

“Often a combination of these modules is required to automate the low-level hardware of a machine. The VCU processes communication with the base station, navigation and all safety monitoring. The VCU contains multiple processors with redundancy for monitoring the safety systems.”

The degree of a vehicle’s automation can vary, from simpler set ups where each machine is moved via a remote control operated from a short distance away, to more complex ones where the actions of a whole fleet of machines is programmed by a central computer at a different location.

Sensors are a significant part of the autonomous system, and ASI primarily uses radar, optical, and laser obstacle detection sensors “because they complement each other,” says Mitch. These obstacle detection sensors are backed up by higher-level detection based on GPS, which can see and prevent accidents that could be invisible even to a human. “If there’s a blind corner, or a vehicle coming up over the other side of the hill, the GPS software can see what’s there and stop the vehicle if a collision is possible,” explains Mitch.

One of the most challenging aspects of autonomous vehicle navigation is the positioning of machines underground, he adds. “While there are positioning options available underground, there are limitations to them and resulting operational limitations.” This is an area of continuing research and development.

Cost, efficiency and productivity savings

Enabling a vehicle to operate without a human inside it has many obvious benefits. One of the most spectacular advantages lies in the potential cost savings.

According to a 2010 study, entitled ‘Using autonomous equipment to achieve high performance in the mining industry’, Irish consultancy Accenture found that automation could achieve cost savings of 80% or more, easily justifying the capital cost.

Part of this 80% cost saving, of course, comes from hiring and paying fewer people to operate the machines. In some cases just one operator will be tasking and monitoring a whole fleet, potentially reducing a company’s labour costs significantly. However, further and sometimes greater cost savings come from improving an operation’s efficiency and productivity.

Automation serves to replace human error and vulnerability with computer intelligence and machine endurance. A computerised monitoring system alerts the machine operator to maintenance needs, reducing unscheduled vehicle maintenance and downtime. Vehicle downtime is reduced further by taking shift changes out of the equation. Operating hours are lengthened as human limitations are removed. Inefficiencies and bottlenecks in operations are eliminated as the vehicle fleet is choreographed by a central system.

“One of the greatest benefits [of automation] is the efficiency of a machine, and the way in which it operates,” says Mitch. “Often we get reports from customers that their manual drivers – even when there are trucks waiting – will speed down a hill, potentially damaging the vehicle frame, so that they can sit and eat their lunch or read the newspaper, for example.

“Our choreographer software controls a mine’s traffic – it knows that a vehicle doesn’t need to go at top speed if it will be joining a queue. If there’s a wait, it slows the vehicle down. The vehicle travels at the speed the operator sets, moving safely within the speed at which it’s meant to operate.

“Even if the operator sets a high speed on a road, for example, the software looks ahead and knows the centre of gravity and the mass and everything else for the vehicle, and it will slow the vehicle down for a corner if it might roll at the speed that the operator set,” he continues. “So there are several different safety systems in there to ensure the machine is always running the way it should, which reduces maintenance and makes it more efficient.”

Increased safety

Lower costs and higher productivity are great, but the most persuasive argument for automation in mining is undoubtedly safety. As explained previously, an automated machine’s advanced hazard detection and elimination of human error can make it safer than a human-operated vehicle in terms of avoiding accidents. An additional benefit is the technology’s removal of humans from situations made dangerous by the environment.

A perfect example of this is a recent project of ASI’s in which it automated a fleet of vehicles for London-based Kennecott Copper Corp. at its Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. On 10 April this year, this open-pit mine was partially buried underneath the largest landslide ever recorded in North America. Fortunately, Kennecott managed to get all its workers safely out of harm’s way before the 165 million tonnes of land came crashing down; for the clean-up operation, however, the miner decided not to take any more chances.

Kennecott is operating six large excavators from ASI to help clear the landslide, which involved pushing dirt close to the very steep slopes. This allowed the excavators to be operated via remote control by the machines’ original drivers, standing a safe distance away. In a video report done by Utah news channel KUTV, Kennecott staff spoke of their satisfaction with the system.

“It allows us to do really critical work here in the mine where we are… not putting our people in a dangerous situation,” said Kennecott spokesperson Kyle Bennet.

“We can’t do this without this equipment because of the instability and safety concerns we have,” he added. “So this equipment, even though it is several million dollars… it’s going to allow us to put this operation in position where we can hopefully succeed in 20 or 30 years.”

Cody Sutherlin, a manager with Kennecott overseeing the remote vehicles, told KUTV that ASI’s technology allowed them, “to do the same things we would if we were in the cab”.

It took a while for the mineworkers to adapt to the new way of controlling the vehicles, but in comments to KUTV they called the technology “amazing” and “extremely impressive”.

New opportunities

Of course, it doesn’t take a landslide to make a mine site dangerous. Mineral resources are often found in inhospitable environments where mining would be difficult or impossible using traditional methods.

“Typically mines are at high elevations and that’s one of the main reasons people are seeking automation now,” says Mitch. “There are some very high-altitude mines that it hasn’t been possible to mine efficiently, because the cold and the lack of oxygen prevent people from being up there long. At the other extreme, there are some very deep pits that are very hot.”

ASI has developed ways to seal and ruggedize its autonomous system components to withstand temperatures of -40°C to +85°C, meaning ASI’s computers can now go where humans cannot. This development opens up opportunities that were once beyond consideration.

“I believe there are some operations that have minerals but, given the expense that would be needed without automation, it would just be too expensive to extract them,” says Mitch.

“Automation provides access to minerals at high altitudes, great depths and even in tight spaces where people cannot fit. In a previous project, we provided a mining customer with a robot that could fit into really small underground seams to extract more gold.”

With automation removing the risk from situations too dangerous for human workers, certain existing mining rules and regulations could go out the window.

Limits on the steepness and firmness of the ground, for example, or the temperature and air quality of the working environment could be made redundant through the use of unmanned vehicles in place of manned ones.

“There are a lot of regulations in deep-pit mining – wall steepness for example – to protect humans working in the pit,” Mitch remarks. “These require companies to remove literally millions and millions of tonnes of dirt from the mine that are just overburden, not valuable at all. However, if unmanned vehicles could do the mining work, with humans out of harm’s way, the walls could be much deeper and less overburden would need to be removed. That would lead to much higher efficiencies.”

Automation available to all

Besides finding ways to safeguard the technology against the elements, Mitch says ASI has changed it very little since the beginning. “As far as algorithms, optimisation and controls go, we’re doing the same now as we were 10 years ago,” he remarks. The only part of the technology to have changed significantly, he says, is the price.

“[When we started,] the price for one GPS unit with 2.5cm accuracy was US$55,000 – now it’s more like $7,000. So it’s much more feasible now.”

While all types of automation are becoming more affordable, the independence and flexibility of ASI’s technology gives it a further cost advantage over purpose-built autonomous vehicles. That’s because ASI’s system of ‘building blocks’ can be installed in any mining vehicle, indiscriminate of make. It can be ‘added on’ to a company’s existing vehicle fleet, making it a cost-saving shortcut to achieving an autonomous mine.

“Our technology is priced at a fraction of the cost of the machines to which it is fitted; [it is] definitely in line with what the labour for the machine would cost,” says Mitch.

“Automation costs about US$150,000 for your typical vehicle and if you look at a truck with two or three labour shifts, the technology pays itself off pretty quickly. That, together with our technology’s scalability to any number of vehicles, makes it affordable for even smaller mining companies. We’ve automated vehicles for small, family-owned quarry operations.”

Could every mining company benefit from automation? Mitch believes they could, but that does not mean ASI will sell its technology to anyone who asks. The company will always visit the mine site to gain an understanding of the customer’s situation before helping them “figure out where automation makes sense… where it would be most beneficial”.

Social implications

It seems that bringing automation into mines can only be a good thing for mining companies. But can the same be said for their employees?

Logic based on examples in other industries suggests that no – it can’t. Business sectors from manufacturing to retail have seen autonomous machines taking over the jobs people used to do, reducing the number of jobs on offer. On the same basis, it follows that if mining companies switch to using driverless vehicles then human drivers are made redundant. Mitch argues that it is not as simple as that.

“In many cases – where remote-control vehicles are used, for example – the vehicles still need operators,” he points out. “In a remote location there may be fewer operators, but there are also support systems to consider. For example, you need to have a better radio network installed and someone has to maintain that.”

Mitch claims that autonomy’s greatest impact on labour will be on skills, not numbers. The fundamental nature of mineworker jobs will change. “People generally have to be more skilled to operate these autonomous machines,” he says. “There will be fewer menial jobs that are mundane and dangerous. That will really benefit remote mines in Australia, where companies can’t get people to do the work. Australian workers don’t want to live in the Outback – they’d rather be in Perth running the mine remotely.”

For countries that, like Australia, have a shortage of mine labour and many remote mines, autonomous machines could feasibly help mineworkers more than hinder them. For countries with high unemployment, however, it could be a different story. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine how the loss of ‘menial’ jobs could reduce the training and employment opportunities available to local indigenous people in developing countries, in turn diminishing the opportunity for social and economic development.

Mitch agrees that this consequence is “definitely possible”, but points out that Corporate Social Responsibility will continue to ensure mining companies employ local people and invest in local communities. Moreover, he argues that a largely autonomous mine could give such workers a better deal than they have currently, with jobs that are safer, more skilled and better paid.

An autonomous future

Such changes could be closer than we might think. Mitch believes that autonomous vehicles will be a standard fixture at mines worldwide in as little as five years. “There are certainly enough customers needing autonomy, and asking for it,” he comments.

“Like any emerging technology, vehicle automation still has to prove itself. Mining is one of the newest industries to adopt unmanned vehicles, although it has been trying to do it for many years.”

Mitch suggests that the delay might be due to miners being more sceptical and – with great amounts of money and numbers of lives at stake – more risk-averse. This aversion to the risk of new technology kept automation off mine sites for years, until it became clear that it could help prevent fatal accidents – the greatest risk of all.

“There are several mining companies buying unmanned systems now, and the more mines using the technology, the more people will understand its capabilities and embrace it,” says Mitch. “I think that the more widespread the technology becomes, the better it will become.”

Whatever the implications of autonomous mining for industry, miners, employees, society and the world at large, one thing is undeniable – the age of autonomy is well and truly upon us.

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