Autonomous mining trucks and equipment – connected Pit Vipers are every miner’s dream

Have you ever driven a self-driving vehicle? Or perhaps an even better question would be: can you even drive something that is self-driving and automated? Maybe we soon will have to change the way we talk about self-driving, as well as change our entire approach to travelling and transportation. I mean: if a car is entirely self-sufficient - would you even need to have a driver’s license?

people inside mining

But, I’m getting side-tracked. What I really wanted to talk about is a very specific type of self-driving vehicle that I recently came across in a project we did at Ericsson Consumer & IndustryLab. This project was done together with Swedish mining company, Boliden AB. They have eight mines, and one of them is Aitik, an open pit mine located in the north of Sweden. It is the largest open pit mine in Europe, and would cover most of Stockholm city with an active excavation area of three square kilometres. Aitik is primarily a copper mine, but also gold and silver are found there.

We took a deeper look at a challenge they had at that mine, which was to enable an ore production increase by 25 percent, in the most cost-effective way. This is not easily done, because we are talking about huge amounts of rock and ore being blasted and transported out of the mine every year. A 25 percent increase for Aitik means a capacity increase from 65-70 million metric tons per year, to at least 90! Huge numbers, but then again, in mining everything is big. To get all that rock and ore out of the mine, a lot of super-sized vehicles are needed!

Photo source: Boliden AB

Photo source: Boliden AB

The trucks and load haul dumpers are enormous, and so are the drill rigs, which is what I’m slowly getting to now! These drill rigs, called Pit Vipers, are 30-meter-high machines that drill 17-meter-deep holes in the rock, 50cm in diameter, which are then filled with explosives and subsequently almost 1,400 cubic meters of rock is blasted to pieces for subsequent transportation out of the mine.

Autonomous mining trucks and equipment boosts productivity and increases efficiency

To boost production, more blasting capacity was needed. So, what’s the catch, you might think – just get some more Pit Vipers and you are all set, right? Well it turns out getting more Pit Vipers means a lot of drawbacks, not only financially but also from an employee safety perspective and for the environment. In addition to the cost of purchasing extra drill rigs, more miners would have to be transported in and out of the mine to operate the new rigs. The alternative – to automate the Pit Vipers they already have - would thereby enable Boliden to save 2.5 million euro annually and it would also keep the logistics of transporting mine workers in and out of the mine on a similar level as today, despite increasing the productivity. Since each explosion releases dangerous fumes that need to evaporate before any staff can be allowed in the blast area, a lot of human transportation is needed when the rigs are controlled manually. The benefits do not even stop there – the environment will benefit too, as it turns out that automated, self-driving vehicles can save as much as 10 percent on the fuel consumption, if not more, compared to manually controlled vehicles. A 10 percent lower fuel consumption, will lead to 10 percent lower CO2e emissions – which for the Aitik fleet of trucks can be translated into a decrease of some 9,400 metric tons of CO2e emissions annually.

So, maybe you are now wondering why autonomous mining equipment is more efficient? Well, it turns out there are several reasons for this, but a quite striking one was explained during a visit to Boliden:

“If you tell a person to drill a 15-meter-deep hole, that person will almost always drill a hole that is ‘15 and then some’ meters deep – just to be sure. Tell a machine to drill the same hole, and it will stop exactly at 15 meters!”

Cutting out that extra drilling will naturally lead to both better utilization and a smaller environmental footprint!

So, why did I talk about connected vehicles in the title – was that just a ruse? Nope – I’m just coming to that. When Boliden began the retrofitting of the drill rigs to enable automation, they also enabled remote-control features. They added a couple of cameras, a communication module and upgraded the control system. It turns out that while many times autonomy is sufficient, such as when the drill rig moves from one drill hole to the next along a pre-defined path, there are other situations, for example when there is inspection of a drill area, evaluation of rock conditions, or other exceptions to normal operations, when only humans can make a proper assessment, and in such cases, a remote assessment would be required via camera.

Mobile communications infrastructure as the enabler for autonomous mining equipment

A critical technical enabler for these machines to be able to operate is a well-functioning mobile communications infrastructure. To enable the drill rigs in Aitik, Boliden has installed a standard communication system in the mine, based on WiFi. This has opened up the next frontier of productivity, but the experience has not been flawless. Aitik, being an open pit, presents a challenge to WiFi as it is not designed for wide area outdoor coverage. Connecting the access points using cable is also not ideal in an open pit mine, but it did achieve the initial connectivity needed. After careful rearrangement, pointing and dedication of WiFi access points, an acceptable coverage and performance was finally reached. In this case, coverage was focused on only the active areas of the drill rigs, and regularly needs to be adjusted as these active areas shift location. This solution also severely limits adding other automated mining equipment, or other connected objects.

To achieve full remote control and enable the next wave of automation, a high performance mobile 4G or 5G communication network would be required. That would mean also managing highly complex tasks remotely, such as complex drilling and rock assessments, while enabling full coverage throughout the mine and beyond, including allowing mining trucks and dump loaders to become connected, remote controlled and automated. Furthermore, a 4G/5G mobile network could enable fleet and asset management, geographical positioning with a granularity previously impossible, and particularly for the 5G case, enabling tracking of a large number of battery-powered and connected sensors throughout the mine, without having to replace those batteries every other month.

Clearly the improvements and efficiency gains in the mining industry are far from over. And that brings me back to my initial question about the need for a driver’s license if all vehicles become autonomous and self-driving. Far away in the distant future, we might in fact have a world where humans are no longer needed for many of today’s activities, both work and leisure related. But if previous experiences of automation and the introduction of industrial robots is anything to go by, we will have found many other worthwhile and valuable things to do instead. Life is full of opportunities, let’s go there together – and why not do it in a self-driving vehicle.

Like this post? Discover more about Ericsson and Boliden’s collaborative case study on automation in mining.

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