Mining vehicles need to be able to operate in harsh environments and extremes of hot and cold temperatures. This is one of many conditions which are fulfilled by autonomous technologies.
Mining vehicles need to be able to operate in harsh environments and extremes of hot and cold temperatures. This is one of many conditions which are fulfilled by autonomous technologies.
( Source: Adobe Stock)

SPECIALTY AVS Who are mining vehicle market leaders?

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

Vehicles with some level of autonomy have been active in the mining industry since at least the early 2000s, with significant and/or “full” automation of vehicles first occurring in 2005. As an especially rugged, taxing, and dangerous industry, mining is a prime candidate for the automation of vehicles and industrial processes. Who is working on autonomous technologies for mining vehicles?

Hauling trucks were some of the first mining vehicles to become autonomous, eliminating the need for driver changes and shift breaks. Over the years, other types of mining vehicles and equipment have been automated, but for now, haul trucks are by far the most common autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the mining industry, and the term autonomous haulage systems (AHS) is used by multiple manufacturers.

Mining brings with it several advantages for AVs compared with operation on municipal roads and streets. First of all, other traffic is minimal to none, and even moving obstacles such as bicyclists, pedestrians, and/or animals tend to be few or nonexistent. Secondly, because the range of vehicles is short, and they tend to be built to incredibly durable standards, the life expectancy of AVs can easily be 20 years, and perhaps 30 to 40 years if they work exclusively underground.

Mining vehicles need to be able to operate in harsh environments and extremes of hot and cold temperatures. Fortunately, AVs are not only capable of working in cold or heat that would be uncomfortable or even unmanageable for humans, but they also can operate in environments where dust, gases, air pressure, lack of oxygen, and/or other hazards would be unsafe or even fatal to people.

Mining is known to be a dangerous profession, with the industry experiencing approximately 12,000 fatalities annually worldwide. While mining employs roughly one percent of global workers, it’s responsible for eight percent of fatal occupational accidents. In the United States, transportation accidents were the largest cause of mining fatalities, with a substantial portion of these involving overturned or jackknifed vehicles. Many of these incidents could likely have been avoided had such vehicles been equipped with autonomous functionality.

Due to all of the above conditions, labor costs for mining tend to be high, and the supply of qualified workers is limited. Commodity prices for materials that are mined are volatile, making the industry subject to periodic economic downturns. AVs have the ability to remove some of the unpredictable variables from the mining business, as well as increasing safety; as such, the industry is eager to adopt new technology.

In the European Union, the Horizons 2020 research and innovation program, begun in 2014, has as one of its aims the development of robotic mining technology. The EU believes that productivity gains of 40 to 80 % may be possible with the implementation of autonomous technology in the mining sector.

Australian gold mining firm Resolute is planning on completing work on the world’s first 100 % automated mine in Mali by the early 2020s (the company is working closely with mining AV vendor Sandvik, see below). The mine is expected to produce one-quarter of a million ounces of gold per year over a 12-year period.

In Brazil, Vale—the world’s largest miner of iron ore—automated all the vehicles in its mining fleet— which includes 13 Caterpiller 793F driverless trucks—at the company’s Brucutu mine in 2019, following a series of small-scale trials that increased the volume of iron ore transported by 26 %, while fuel and maintenance costs fell by 10 %.

Still, for all the advantages that autonomous technology bring to mining, the cost of mining AVs will not be cheap. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company has estimated that fully autonomous 250-tonne hauling vehicles may be priced at USD6 million each. Such prices would not be a deterrent to the biggest players in the mining industry, such as BHP Group or Rio Tinto—which claim market capitalizations in the hundreds of billions of dollars—but could be for smaller firms looking to deploy newer equipment.

AV players in the mining industry

Liebherr, BelAZ, and ETF

In November 2017, Swiss-German industrial vehicle manufacturer Liebherr unveiled an open AHS Surface Mining platform with multiple options for its customers; they could have Liebherr integrate all necessary components for AV operation, or they could have the Liebherr components work alongside existing fleet management and telemetry products they currently utilize. Liebherr also stated its autonomy-ready haul trucks would be compatible with the Mobius AV platform from Autonomous Solutions Inc. (see below).

In December 2017, Liebherr’s Mining Group (which is based in Newport News, Virginia) announced a partnership with Virginia-based AV firm Perrone Robotics, which previously had developed aftermarket AV technology for consumer automobiles. One of the first Liebherr vehicles to be outfitted by Perrone with the latter firm’s MAX AV platform was Liebherr’s 7.4-meter (24 foot)-tall T282C 600-tonne haul truck, which has a payload of 363 tonnes.

The world’s largest dump truck, the mammoth 75710, made by Belarus-based heavy vehicle maker BelAZ, stands 8.16 meters (26.77 feet) in height (about the height of a three-story building) and weighs an incredible 450 tonnes. The 75710 can carry a load equivalent to its own weight. In October 2018, BelAZ released an autonomous version of the 75710 along with an autonomous version of the company’s 78250 front loader (loading and unloading are done remotely, rather than autonomously, but the vehicle drives and navigates on its own). The two vehicles are designed to work together specifically in the mining industry. Early tests of the 75710 and 78250 commenced in Morocco in 2019.

ETF Mining Equipment, based in Slovenia, was one of the first companies to create automated mining vehicles from the ground up, instead of as conversions of existing manned vehicles. The company’s modular, electric driverless AHS trucks lack a compartment for a driver and/or passengers.

“Automation is the future of mining for all the best reasons, including motivating the next generations to be miners,” declares Geoffrey Ejzenberg, ETF’s chief client officer. However, Ejzenberg concedes that “vehicle pricing is an important challenge, specifically from a pre-operational cash outlay perspective and the economic viability of new projects.”

“Improving the technology [of mining] is probably the most important [priority for the industry], and that is exactly what ETF has focused on,” says Ejzenberg. “Autonomous systems in time will become a feature similar to climate control in cars. You have standard climate control systems, and premium ones that have additional useful features. But only a complete redesign of the haul vehicle as ETF has done, integrating cyber and physical design, completely digital and electrified, future-proofs the development of haul vehicles.”

“The mine of the future will be a whole new thing—one where we will move less dirt, get to the valuables more quickly, and retrieve those at the lowest cost per tonne of ore produced,” explains Ejzenberg, “with the lowest environmental footprint, and lastly—but not least—an ecosystem where we can take humans out of harm’s way and turn dangerous, dull and dirty jobs into jobs where humans can control fleets from a safe and controlled location close to their homes.”

Sandvik, Scania, and Volvo

Sweden’s Sandvik is a pioneer in mining automation, having built automated loaders for mines as early as 2001. Sandvik is now making a clear effort to show leadership in the area of mining automation; the company claims its mining AVs have operated for more than two million hours underground (where GPS is not available) over the last 20 years.

On the company’s website, a large video can be seen wherein one of the firm’s 38-tonne automated loaders with no driver aboard successfully navigates a labyrinth made out of glass. At one point, the lights in the warehouse where the video was filmed are shut off, and the loader continues to navigate the maze successfully.

Sandvik manufactures a number of autonomous-capable vehicles, including its TH663i and TH551i hauling trucks, DD422i development drills, and LH621i loaders. Sandvik also offers the OptMine 3D Mine Visualizer software system, which lets workers see a virtual model of an entire mining environment and plan development and operations. Sandvik tests its vehicles and autonomous systems at an underground test mine in Tampere, Finland.

“A customer we have in Australia has automated their entire mine”, says Jouni Koppanen, a senior systems engineer for automation at Sandvik. “They still have the same number of people working as they did before, but now most are above ground in comfortable offices. Each operator can now control multiple loaders simultaneously, while the automated machines do all the hard work.”

Scania, a Swedish heavy-duty vehicle company that’s now a wholly owned subsidiary of Germany’s Volkswagen under its Traton division, intends to enter the mining AV sector shortly. In September 2019, Scania revealed its Scania AXL biofuel-driven, cab-less modular autonomous concept dump truck.

“We already have self-driving trucks in customer operations,” said Claes Erixon, Scania’s head of research and development. “However, so far, they have been with room for a safety driver who can intervene if necessary. Scania AXL does not have a cab, and that changes the game significantly.” The AXL was publicly shown at Scania’s Södertälje Demo Center in October 2019.

Elsewhere in Sweden, Volvo Trucks (a business that’s separate from Volvo Cars, which is a division of China’s Geely Group) began trialing autonomous versions of its Forward Control Medium Extreme (FMX) heavy-duty trucks underground at the Boliden sulfide ore mine in Kristineberg, Sweden in 2016. The trucks use radar, LiDAR, and GPS and map routes through the mine’s tunnels as well as detecting objects such as equipment and/or miners in their path. Unlike people, the trucks do not need to wait for a mine to be ventilated before being able to operate safely.

Volvo now has a unit called Volvo Autonomous Solutions (VAS), which creates autonomous trucking solutions for companies in various industries, including the mining industry.

In November 2018, VAS trucks began working in a pilot program for Norwegian mining firm Brønnøy Kalk moving limestone along a five-kilometer route from an open-pit mine to a crushing station at a nearby river port. Operating night and day, the trucks travel 100 meters in the pit area, enter a 3.5-kilometer tunnel, travel a short distance, and enter a second 800-meter tunnel. After exiting, they execute a three-point turn and drive in reverse up to the crushing station where they empty their loads into the machine’s feeder. Although the entire operation is autonomous at Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 4, for now, two backup workers are present in the vehicles at all times.

Komatsu, Caterpillar, Hitachi

Japanese heavy-industrial equipment manufacturer Komatsu has been testing and using autonomous vehicles since 2005. That year, the company first began deploying heavy-duty AHS trucks at the Radomiro Tomic copper mine near Calama, Chile. The operation was the impetus for a commercial rollout of the technology for state-owned copper-mining firm Codelco in January 2008.

In late 2008, Komatsu began a second deployment of its AHS vehicles at the Yandicoogina iron ore mine in Western Australia operated by aforementioned mining multinational Rio Tinto.

At Rio Tinto’s Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia, there are at least 80 driverless Komatsu hauling truck AVs operating (Rio Tinto also has automated vehicles from Caterpiller [see below]). The truck AVs use radar, LiDAR, and GPS to navigate and deliver high-grade ore to processing stations. As of 2017, Rio Tinto announced that autonomous trucks at Pilbara mining sites had moved more than a billion tonnes of material and cut transport costs by 15 %.

Over the years, Komatsu has supplied hundreds of AHS trucks to dozens of customers on four continents. Like Caterpillar (see below), Komatsu has stated that its AHS trucks have hauled more than two billion tonnes of material.

Heavy-duty equipment maker Caterpillar has been delivering autonomous trucks since 2013. One of the company’s vehicles, the Cat 797, may be the world’s most recognizable dump truck. The latest incarnation of it, the 797F, was launched in 2009; it’s the second-largest dump truck on the planet, standing some 7.7 meters (25 feet) tall and carrying a payload of 363 tonnes. By mid-2018, Caterpillar stated that it had 150 autonomous versions of the 797 operating throughout the world. Caterpillar’s 789D truck has also been automated for some customers. Nonetheless, most of Caterpillar autonomous trucks are Cat 793F models, which carry a 227-tonne payload.

For automation of its trucks, Caterpillar uses its Cat MineStar Command automated hauling control AV platform, which the company has also adapted to work with the Komatsu (see above) 930E dump truck as well as its own vehicles. As of April 2020, after more than six years of field operations, Caterpillar announced that 276 of its trucks equipped with MineStar Command had hauled more than two billion tonnes of material.

Japan’s Hitachi Construction Machinery (HCM) first used AHS trucks in 2013 at the Australian Meandu coal mine operated by Queensland government-owned Stanwell Corporation. In 2019, the company laid out a vision whereby it would promote an open autonomy standard for the mining industry based on interoperability, innovation, and an ecosystem of partner solution links. This approach is already being undertaken by HCM for the construction industry and is being delivered to Hitachi mining customers through HCM’s subsidiary Wenco International Mining Systems, which provides fleet management systems.

The idea is to avoid vendor lock-in to “future-proof” customer infrastructure and allow the freedom of technology choice independent of fleet management. Simplified connectivity between systems will boost sharing of information across sectors, allowing end-to-end visibility and control throughout the entire mining process. Access to more robust process management and data analytics will provide a better systems-level understanding of operations. HCM is in the process of seeking customer and vendor partnerships to carry out this strategy.

Together, Hitachi, Caterpillar, and Komatsu have reported gains of up to 30 % in operational productivity for their AHS AVs at many customer job sites.

Autonomous Solutions Inc.

As opposed to the aforementioned firms, Petersboro, Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI) doesn’t manufacture vehicles of its own; instead, it specializes in aftermarket automation of existing rigid haul trucks, bulldozers, excavators and articulated dump trucks (ADTs) from other vendors according to client needs. The company’s AV platform for this approach is called Mobius; a number of mining-industry OEMs such as Liebherr (see above) make use of or have endorsed Mobius for use with their vehicles.

A spinoff of Utah State University’s Center for Self-Organizing and Intelligent Systems (CSOIS), ASI focuses on three other industries (military, agriculture, and automotive) besides mining; since 2013, the company has been working with automaker Ford on automotive AV durability and testing.

In December 2017, ASI stated that it was collaborating with Chilean conglomerate Sigdo Koppers’ Enaex explosives division on an application for Mobius to automate mining blast vehicles, including potentially coordinating drilling and blasting processes.

In April 2019, ASI introduced a new method of sensor-fusion navigation for AVs in locations such as underground mines where GPS systems don’t function. These locations do not need to be static; ASI’s software is designed to handle changing environments. ASI announced it had received a grant from the U.S. Army for further deep-learning research in this area.

In July 2020, ASI announced that it would be partnering with Peruvian mine management and optimization solution provider Mine Sense for Miners (MS4M) to ensure compatibility of Mobius with MS4M’s ControlSense fleet management software, which is widely used throughout the mining industry.