Automating aspects of mining has been a long-standing, if slow moving, trend within the industry. Its proponents say that autonomous vehicles, drill rigs and processing can boost efficiency and productivity, improve safety, and reduce overall costs. Although these claims aren’t untrue, automation has perhaps not transformed mining as advocates might have expected, as the sector remains an analogue business, focused heavily on labour-intensive processes.
But as mines get deeper and grades decline, miners, which typically have very little control over the revenue side of their business, are increasingly seeing the benefits of making the investment in automation. With the global commodities crash of 2014-15 and the uncertainty surrounding the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrating the fragility of the mining industry, actors are looking more closely at automation, which offers more control over their three major costs – wages, energy, materials, and supplies – while also boosting productivity.
Mining analysts at EY note that miners that had already used automation and remote operating centres prior to 2020 fared better during the pandemic. This is an outcome clearly not lost on companies; a recent survey by EY revealed that overall companies plan to increase investment in digitisation and automation areas, with robotic process automation being a top priority. In fact, as uptake has increased, digital and innovation has fallen in EY’s risk register from being number one in 2018 to seven in 2022, raising the question of whether now the time for automation is finally here.
Bolstered by large capex budgets, industry leaders in adopting automation have been Rio Tinto, Vale, BHP, and Anglo American, which have invested in driverless train systems, trucks and conveyor belts. Now other mining companies are moving rapidly forward with plans to automate mines and operate them remotely.
Chilean state-owned copper mining company Codelco is a case in point. The company has run Komatsu 930E autonomous trucks at its Gaby mine since 2008, and will this year start receiving trucks from Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions – the Toro TH663i trucks and Sandvik LH514 loaders – which are part of a $43m order with the company for its major expansion of the underground El Teniente mine in Chile. Coldelco will also deploy Sandvik’s AutoMine Fleet system, a tele-remote operation management system for the underground loaders and trucks sharing the same automated production area.
The expansion work, set for completion in 2023, will see the mine’s production reach an estimated 500,000 tonnes of copper a year, positioning it among the world’s five largest copper operations.
From 2023 through 2027, Sandvik will deliver additional trucks and loaders to be added to the AutoMine Fleet system. Simultaneously, Codelco is applying automation on blasthole drill rigs at the Andina, Radomiro and Gaby mines, set for completion in mid 2022.
Autonomous technology, improved processes
The shift to automation across Codelco’s huge portfolio of mines is part of efforts to boost efficiency and keep down costs at its aging deposits, as well as to improve sustainability.
Autonomous technology is accruing more and more operational hours, giving miners more confidence to make investments. Caterpillar said in May 2021 that its autonomous trucks have now hauled more than three billion tonnes of material using Cat MineStar Command. Technavio report the global mining truck market is forecast for steady growth of US$991.95M from 2020 to 2025 (4.86% CAGR).
Miners are also opting for cheaper retrofits that can be tailor-adapted to the specific challenges of the mine. In late 2021, China’s Jiangxi Copper signed an agreement with Chinese autonomous mining truck technology group TAGE Idriver to retrofit in-service Komatsu electric drive mining trucks for unmanned driving. TAGE has said the transformation will allow the vehicles to interact with the other manned machines on the mine, such as electric shovels, including the Komatsu P&H 2300XPC and Komatsu bulldozers for production operations.
BHP also announced in January it will move its $3.6bn South Flank mine, in the Pilbara, Western Australia to autonomous haulage, phased across five autonomous operation zones. The project is expected to begin in June 2022, and by September 2023, the entire fleet of 41 Komatsu 930e haul trucks are expected to be converted for autonomous operation, along with about 180 other pieces of equipment that support mining operations including excavators, dozers, front-end loaders, water trucks and site vehicles.
The company says the roll out will bring ‘safety, production and equipment utilisation and reliability benefits, and new skills and opportunities for the mining and maintenance teams.’
Meanwhile, Rio Tinto wants its Gudai-Darri iron ore mine, also in the Pilbara, to be the world’s most advanced mine sites with automation technology solutions across the value chain. The site is currently expected to use an autonomous haulage fleet, the world’s first autonomous water truck and a drill system.
Despite the uptick of mining automation projects, going autonomous is still challenging, not least because it has faced stiff push back from unions who see the move as threatening jobs. The transition will alsorequire huge amounts of investment, planning and staff training, and as such is the reserve of the major miners.
Yet Resolute Mining’s Syama underground gold mine in Mali, which is thought to be fully autonomous, comprising autonomous drilling, loading and dumping, haulage, and truck navigation, does buck this trend, and could provide a blueprint for other miners to follow.
Advice and guidance and standards on how to embark on such a major transformation is emerging to help the companies take the plunge. The Global Mining Guidelines Group, for example, has published the System Safety for Autonomous Mining white paper that aims to provide a comprehensive view of the need for a “system safety approach” for mining companies deploying and using autonomous systems.
It’s thought that next generation networking such as 5G, which allows for high-speed connectivity, millions more devices to be used in one area and secure private networking that can be deployed anywhere, will support the roll out of autonomous vehicles at mine sites further. Coldelco has already run pilots with 5G technology, though there is still a need for costs to come down and more proven use cases for the technology.
This is perhaps why digital solutions specialist Axora reported in its latest Innovation Forecast that leading mining sector participants don’t feel industry has, as yet, wholeheartedly embraced innovation.
Though it believes the pandemic may alter this attitude. Of the 150 senior industry leaders surveyed, 99% said that technology would ensure their organisation’s survival.
“Amidst post-pandemic uncertainty, metals and mining organisations will need to achieve greater operational efficiency across the value chain while spending less, an issue that digital technology is uniquely qualified to address. And as the green energy transition drives demand for resources such as copper, lithium, and cobalt, digitalisation can help companies take full advantage of the next great super cycle,” it noted.