To counter the rise of injuries and deaths that stretch across heavy-duty industries, both on-road and off-road, initiatives that aim to promote workforce health and safety are being adopted countrywide.
Drivers and pedestrians are understandably nervous about the presence of semi-autonomous passenger cars and, soon, fully autonomous passenger cars on our roads. What would these same people think if they got a glimpse of the vehicles moving through underground mines from Wyoming to Western Australia? How would they feel about 100-ton driverless bulldozers moving in unison through cramped tunnels, filling their buckets with ore and highly trained operators in offices thousands of miles away? The use of autonomous and semi-autonomous equipment is more of what we might expect at a futuristic mining colony on Mars than at a present-day mine here on Planet Earth.
For a variety of reasons, the use of remotely controlled or programmed vehicles is slowly making its impact in the underground mining industry. Underground mining is dangerous. It is competitive. And it is taking place further and further beneath the earth’s crust. For all of these reasons, mine operators and the vendors who equip them are working furiously to get human operators out of the mines and into safer locations.
Held every four years, MINExpo International 2016 wrapped up one of its most successful shows last week. While final numbers have not yet officially been released, the latest figures estimate there were 43,000 registered guests from over 130 countries and more than 1,900 exhibitors covering approximately 840,000 sq ft of the Las Vegas Convention Center. These numbers exceeded the 2012 record-setting attendance for this world-renowned trade fair.
Since mining companies gain efficiency by moving more tonnage with fewer but larger vehicles, the trend leads toward ever-larger dozers, trucks, draglines and shovels. But the larger the vehicle, the larger the blind zones around them; and these blind zones can lead to potentially catastrophic accidents.
Larger Vehicles Can Mean More Danger
The blind zones around mining equipment can be huge: Sean Martell, Preco’s mining and construction sales manager, says that when operating large haul trucks, drivers can lose visibility to a hazard when the person or object is as far away as 150 feet from the rear of these massive machines. That’s half a football field.
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.