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The future is autonomy

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World Coal,

Vivien Hui looks into what the future might hold for fleet management systems and autonomous haulage.

In 1979, the first company specialising in fleet management system for the mining industry was founded and incorporated as Modular Mining Systems Inc. (MMSI). In 1996, Komatsu America Corp. (KAC) acquired a controlling interest in MMSI and, in 2003, KAC acquired the remaining shares. Since then, the number of companies offering fleet management solutions for opencast mining has proliferated and now includes Leica Geosystems Mining and Devex Mining (both companies now owned by Hexagon), Wenco International Mining Systems (now owned by Hitachi), Caterpillar Global Mining and Micromine Pty Ltd.

Traditionally, fleet management systems include real-time production monitoring and production optimisation with customised hardware and software. The objective is to optimise the assignment of haulage units to loading and dumping points, thus reducing the haulage cycle and queue time. In the past 10 years, fleet management systems have become integral to any new mine development; the cost is finally a line item on most feasibility studies. The market is now saturated with options, while the science and engineering behind these systems has been refined so that any product hardware/software upgrades provide only a marginal value-added benefit to the end-user. So what is the next step change?

In the past five years, the industry has been abuzz with developing, testing and proving autonomous vehicles for an opencast mine. With the support of mining companies, OEMs and original technology manufacturers (OTMs) have been leading the way. The development of autonomous haulage systems (AHS) is the logical next step in the evolution from fleet management systems to true fleet automation solutions.

Current autonomous initiatives

AHS initiatives, including pilot projects or production deployments, have proliferated worldwide within the past five years. Rio Tinto, a pioneer when it comes to AHS, started trials with Komatsu in 2008 and has a reported 10% improvement in time efficiency since then. “The autonomous haul trucks, which include 19 930E Komatsu units currently working on two mining operations, are considered a vital component in the mining company’s strategy of using new technologies to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve health, safety and environmental performance,” the mining company said in a press release. In 2011, Komatsu and Rio Tinto announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding to take the next steps towards building a fleet of 150 AHS trucks by the end of 2015 in their iron ore operations in Western Australia.

Australia has been the host country for most autonomy trials, including the aforementioned Rio Tinto/Komatsu collaboration, but also for Caterpillar and Hitachi. Caterpillar currently has two fleets of autonomous trucks running in Western Australia: a fleet of six running at Jimblebar with another six to come online at Wheelarra. There are plans to expand the existing fleet and also add additional fleets at the current sites and neighboring mines.

In 2013, Hitachi Construction Machinery (Australia) announced the initial trials of AHS at the Meandu coal mine. This announcement came after Hitachi’s plans to expand its suite of mining technologies through its subsidiary, Wenco. The first of three trucks from Japan, Hitachi’s new EH5000 AC trucks, were scheduled to arrive in Q2 2013. Meandu, run by Stanwell Corp., had planned to hold the trials over a three-year period.

Outside of Australia, ASI has installed its retrofit package on two mining units in South Africa. Founded in 2000, ASI focused on agriculture and automotive industries until 2008, when it released its first vehicle with autonomous options into the mining market. Beyond the vehicles and equipment used in hard rock and coal mining, Suncor Oil Sands is currently running two autonomous-capable haul trucks as part of an engineering test at its minesite. As of February 2014, Suncor has one factory Cat 797F with a factory autonomous package that runs with the rest of the Suncor truck fleet but with the autonomous feature deactivated. This truck collects data only and will continue to do so until early 2015. There is also one Komatsu truck running autonomously, but separated in its own area, with a standard Komatsu test track totalling 2 km.

Challenges and obstacles

With any new technology, there are challenges. The following are obstacles the industry currently faces that emerged through the OTM/OEM interviews:

  • Proving the technology itself.
  • OEM dependency (single sourcing all equipment) vs OEM-agnostic companies.
  • Network support.
  • Capital cost and upgrade path.
  • Scalability/change management.
  • Labour/people/social licensing.


The future of fleet management systems is here: autonomous haulage. As a step-change evolution from automated information flow to automated vehicle control and mine execution, the technology has improved dramatically within recent years. Early investors in AHS have started reaping the benefits from their collaboration with OEMs and technology providers.

Although autonomous haulage does have some roadblocks along the way to obtaining more widespread acceptance, it is paving the way to improving efficiency, utilisation and recovery of commodities. Focused on cost savings, safety initiatives and production increases, autonomy can allow lower margin mines to succeed, thereby increasing economically viable mineral resources and reserves globally.

Written by Vivien Hui. Edited by . The author is a mining engineer and author of the MiningEnginerd blog about blogger about mining operations, equipment and technology.

The full report appears in the September issue of World Coal. Subscribers can view the full article by logging in and downloading the issue here.

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