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.
Safety on Steroids
The same concerns that prompt companies to install PRECO’s Preview Radar object detection sensors on above-ground trucks is also driving the development and adoption of mining vehicles with varying degrees of autonomy. Narrow tunnels, blind corners, low visibility, the presence of deadly gases, the danger of tunnel collapse and explosions all pose serious threats to drivers and to the equipment itself.
Today mine operators use sophisticated computer software to map out entire mines. The software uses the information to create detailed driving instructions semi- and fully autonomous vehicles can use to accomplish tasks inside the mines. Sensors, GPS guidance systems, radar and lasers enable the vehicles to operate safely in close proximity to each other without collision. Human operators are safer because they are no longer physically present in the mines. Instead, they are guiding and programming the vehicles from the safety of office desks far from the harsh conditions of mines. Given that valuable ores are being mined deeper and deeper in the earth, the decision to adopt use of autonomous vehicles is becoming a clear one for many mine operators.
Three Months of Operations Savings or A Year of Work for the Cost of Nine Months
While remotely controlling one or many pieces of heavy equipment, human operators first take the vehicles through their paces, guiding them to specific locations in the mine and having them do specific maneuvers. Once the operator programs an entire “task,” the vehicles are able to repeat that task 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no bathroom breaks, coffee breaks, lunch breaks, sleep or sickness. Some mine operators say the use of these vehicles is saving them as much as 500 work hours per year—the equivalent of about three months. By helping companies decrease insurance costs, and costs associated with training, transporting and housing operators, autonomous vehicles are increasing efficiency and productivity and improving the bottom line.
Computers Don’t Have Lead Feet
Mine operators also talk about the dramatic increases in efficiency driverless vehicles are delivering. Controlled by sophisticated software, these vehicles tend to drive at much more even speeds, increasing fuel economy, overall engine performance-even tire life. The software also gathers data to continuously refine vehicle operations resulting in more efficient routing, fewer accidents, better fuel economy and the ability of the vehicles to operate at faster speeds, further increasing productivity and reducing emissions. Remote operators can still intervene when necessary, such as when a vehicle breaks down or an obstruction blocks a haul road, and can continuously monitor the entire vehicle fleet from one screen.
What’s the Downside of Autonomous Vehicles?
There are a number of things standing in the way of widespread adoption of autonomous technology. The technology is not cheap, nor are many vehicles in use today built from the ground up with the technology fully integrated. Companies are experimenting with retrofitting existing mining vehicles for autonomous operations. But this can require modification of existing cabling, installation of new linkages, cylinders and sensors in such a way that the control system can interface with the vehicle without affecting its native operating system.
Not surprisingly, organizations representing equipment operators are not excited about a technology that will displace many of its members. Mine operators and their vendors argue that while autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of drivers, it will create new, higher-paying and much safer jobs. Already, they say, universities are educating a new generation of students trained to program and operate these advanced systems. In fact, mining companies think that it will be easier to find people able to work in this new data-driven environment than to find traditional equipment operators.
There is also the problem of operating autonomous vehicles along with human-operated equipment. Given the state of current mine operations, human operators will remain in the equation for some time—even as driverless vehicles play a stronger role in the industry. It is in the intersection of these two worlds that accidents and collisions will likely continue.
Manufacturers also attribute slow adoption to the ever-changing geological and environmental conditions inside mines and to the fact that mine operators have done a reasonably good job of creating safe conditions inside modern mines. But given the highly competitive nature of mining, experts say that most mines will have to adopt autonomous-vehicle technology if they want to remain competitive. As the cost of the technology goes down and evidence of its effectiveness becomes more apparent, the use of semi- and fully autonomous mining equipment will become the rule, not the exception.