The Role of Mining Vehicle Automation

Nick Holland, CEO of Gold Fields, one of the world’s largest gold mining firms, recently outlined many of the challenges faced by gold producers —as well as by miners of most other resources—and discussed the roadmap Gold Fields intends to take to thrive in today’s mining environment. His address took place at the Future Mining Conference 2015 in Sydney Australia, November 4, 2015.

Holland shared that due to challenges in recent years such as the lower grades of ore deposits, significant global price drops, and cost inflation, “shareholder value [has slumped] by 50-80% since 2007.” With pressures on global commodities, today’s mining industry at large mirrors this trend, though Holland’s presentation provided a dramatic window into just how piercing these pressures have been. “The gold mine of the future has to be set up, structured and managed differently from how it is today if it is to remain relevant and value-adding to all its stakeholders,” Holland concluded.

Of the solutions to the gold mine of the future posed by Holland, three are of particular interest to the automation industry. In his presentation, Holland suggested that in order to remain competitive the mining industry should improve in the following areas:

  • Embracing digital mining, advanced analytics, and new software technologies
  • Converting conventional mining practices to mechanization and automation
  • Cooperating more closely with OEMs that develop and operate best-of-class technologies and equipment at various levels of automation

Mining automation technologies are becoming more available and affordable for nearly every area of operation, such as exploration, extraction, transportation of materials, processes automation, software/analytics, etc. In one of these areas, extraction, and transportation, automation technology focuses primarily on further mechanizing and introducing remotely controlled vehicles to enhance production and safety. Despite this primary purpose, the software used to direct the efforts of robotic vehicles can also provide a variety of analytic and process benefits.

For example, Mobius command and control software developed by Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) allows a single operator to control multiple unmanned vehicles. However, as a secondary benefit, Mobius tracks all manned and unmanned vehicles in the mining network, which gives mine administrators access to real-time vehicle locations and enables them to monitor equipment utilization, locate bottlenecks in the production process, and receive notification of maintenance or safety issues.

Mining companies can further combat inflating costs by shifting to unmanned vehicle technologies. Recent numbers released by global mining major Rio Tinto suggest that vehicle automation technologies outperform manned fleets by an average of 12% and can save as much as 500 man-hours per year per vehicle by eliminating downtime for shift changes, breaks, and absenteeism. In addition, automation improves safety and enhances the ability to operate equipment at OEM recommended parameters thus facilitating predictable maintenance schedules and decreasing unscheduled maintenance. Remote operators can control more than one vehicle allowing mines to benefit from economies of scale in their labor force.

While Holland suggests a closer relationship with technology and vehicle OEMs that provide automation, mining companies may find this course expensive and restrictive. Closer relationships may involve replacing existing equipment with automation-enabled equipment or signing restrictive single-source fleet contracts.

Third-party automation companies may be the most affordable and least restrictive option. Third-party companies, like ASI, provide aftermarket automation technologies that retrofit to existing equipment, allowing miners to automate their existing fleet, integrate with existing software and infrastructure, and maintain their flexibility to purchase and automate the right vehicle regardless of the manufacturer.

Source: ASI Mining'
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