They never take shift breaks. They do the dirty work. They face endless, brutal hazards. Driverless vehicles are on the scene in mining operations around the world and, in an industry that’s remained largely unchanged for the past 30 years, the big question looms, “How will this affect us?” Followed by the immediate concern, “Is it safe?”
First though, how do autonomous vehicles actually work? Under the hood of driverless heavy-duty fleets, you’ll find a combination of sensors, typically using radar and GPS to navigate. The GPS plots the course and mission of the vehicle. For mining operations, unmanned equipment typically moves around a pre-defined course—streamlining rigorous, tedious mining tasks like dumping and loading.
Object detection radar technology accounts for on-the-ground dynamics and variables, like obstacles in the path of mining equipment. These radars actively monitor for people, equipment, structures and other vehicles. Through sensor fusion, radars enhance and integrate with other technology systems to elevate the safety factor significantly.
Together, these sensors make the prospect of autonomy a reality. However, a recent accident at an iron ore mine in Australia involving an autonomous haul truck and a manned water cart, emphasizes the need for sensors that can change the mode of operation based on speed to detect obstacles in time for evasive safety action. A follow-up report on the accident found that, due to the distance at which the water cart was detected and the autonomous truck’s speed and response time, the collision could not have been prevented with the installed technology.
New radar technologies will soon offer more specific information about the distance, velocity and location of an object from a piece of equipment. These new capabilities, along with digital cameras and telematics, will further boost active safety measures involving autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles.
One has to wonder, what are the real world effects of driverless technology? According to John Meech, professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia, the benefits of these autonomous hauling systems include:
- Increase of 15 to 20 percent in output.
- Decrease of 10 to 15 percent in fuel consumption.
- Decrease in tire wear by 5 to 15 percent.
- Increase in truck up-time by 10 to 20 percent.
- Decrease in maintenance by 8 percent.
Australian mining giant, BHP Billiton has recently begun expanding their fleet of autonomous equipment, citing safety as one of the biggest drivers. According to Tim Day, general manager at BHP, “The single biggest reason is safety.”
In a work environment that’s often monotonous, isolated, and jam-packed with hazards—like 1,000-foot deep pits and 20-foot ladders just to climb into a truck’s cab—fatigue and human error frequently come into play when accidents happen. With autonomous vehicles, operations are more predictable and remove people from potentially hazardous environments.
Staffing options in mining operations are bound to change with this technology, with predictions that the labor intensity on worksites will go down. While there may be fewer drivers and on-the-ground support needed, the move to autonomous technology will attract more high-tech workers to the industry to design and run these driverless operations. With the ability to operate these systems remotely, workers can live in cities instead of at isolated worksites, changing the employment landscape dramatically.
The future is now, and driverless technology is on the ticket, as is the need for safety technology that keeps up with the evolution of autonomous vehicles.