Autonomous haulage achieves billion-tonne milestones in mining

Global mining companies are making the transition from manned to unmanned truck fleets to increase safety and efficiency in moving large amounts of material

 The Komatsu FrontRunner autonomous haulage system has helped unmanned mining trucks move more than two billion tonnes of surface material.
Christian Sprogoe Photography always credit Christian Sprogoe Photography when published
The Komatsu FrontRunner autonomous haulage system has helped unmanned mining trucks move more than two billion tonnes of surface material.


In November 2018, the Komatsu FrontRunner autonomous haulage system (AHS) which enables unmanned operation of ultra-class mining trucks achieved the milestone of moving more than two billion tonnes of surface material in the copper, iron ore, and oil sands industries, autonomously. Since its first commercial deployment in 2008 at Codelco’s Gabriela Mistral copper mine in Chile and Rio Tinto’s iron ore mine in Australia, the Komatsu FrontRunner AHS has experienced exponential growth in cumulative production, breaking the one billion tonne mark in 2016 and the 1.5 billion tonne mark in late 2017. This has been accomplished with more than 130 trucks in operation to date. Currently, the FrontRunner AHS operates around the clock hauling copper, iron and oil sands, at seven sites, across three continents. An additional 150 trucks will deployed to the Canadian oil sands over the next seven years.

Mining trucks operating with the Cat Command system have moved over one billion tonnes of material.

In the same month, Caterpillar reported that its mining trucks operating with the Cat Command system reached a haulage milestone of one billion tonnes. Trucks equipped with Cat Command respond to calls to the shovel, move into position, haul to dump points and report for maintenance, all without an operator on board. Caterpillar deployed the first six commercial autonomous trucks in 2013, and the fleet has now grown to more than 150 with six different mining companies in in Australia, South America and North America hauling in iron ore, copper and oil sands. The current Cat autonomous truck fleet comprises the Cat 793F, Cat 797F, and Cat 789D with payloads of 227 tonnes, 363 tonnes and 181 tonnes, respectively. 

Sean McGinnis, product manager, Caterpillar Mining Technology, said: “In the process of hauling one billion tonnes, the autonomous trucks travelled nearly 35 million kilometres. No lost time injuries have been attributed to Cat autonomous haulage. Command for hauling has demonstrated how it enhances safety by eliminating truck operating errors and by reducing the number of people working in the active mining area.” 

Mining companies worldwide, particularly in Chile, Australia and Canada, are making the transition from manned to unmanned truck fleets. Autonomous haul trucks are operated by a supervisory system and a central controller, rather than a driver. They use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections and to know actual locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles at all times. Implementing autonomous haulage means more material can be moved efficiently and safely, creating a direct increase in productivity. 

UK-based Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest metals and mining corporations is also the world’s largest owner and operator of AHS trucks. Rio Tinto has pioneered the use of automation in the mining industry with the largest fleet of driverless trucks, the world’s first fully-autonomous heavy haul, long distance rail network, and fully autonomous production drills.

In the beginning of 2018, Rio Tinto’s fleet of autonomous haul trucks achieved the milestone of moving one billion tonnes of material at its iron ore mine in Australia. On average, each autonomous truck at Rio Tinto’s mine was estimated to have operated about 700 hours more than conventional haul trucks during 2017, with around 15% lower load and haul unit costs, and importantly, there have been zero injuries attributed to autonomous haul trucks since deployment. As a result, the pace of automation across Rio Tinto’s iron ore business is accelerating, and the company plans to increase its autonomous truck fleet from 80 to more than 140 units by the end of 2019.

By the end of the year, Rio Tinto deployed the world’s largest robot and first automated heavy-haul, long-distance rail network. The $940 million AutoHaul programme is focused on automating trains transporting iron ore to Rio Tinto’s port facilities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The average return distance of these trains is about 800 kilometres with the average journey cycle, including loading and dumping, taking about 40 hours. Locomotives carrying AutoHaul software are fitted with on-board cameras allowing for constant monitoring from the company’s operations centre, and all public rail crossings on the network are fitted with CCTV cameras. 

Brazil-based metals and mining company Vale plans to operate its Brucutu mine with only autonomous trucks in 2019. During six years of research and testing, seven trucks were used to transport iron ore from the mining front to the processing plant alongside six other traditionally operated vehicles. Based on data collected, Vale expects to increase equipment lifespan by around 15% and reduce fuel consumption and maintenance costs by 10%.

Rio Tinto is exploring the use of smaller trucks for more flexibility in operations. The company is testing an autonomous transport system developed by Scania at its Dampier Salt operations in Western Australia. The first phase of the trial started in August 2018 and involves a Scania XT 8×4 autonomous tipper truck working separately from Dampier’s active operations.

UK-based mining company Rio Tinto is testing an autonomous transport system developed by Scania at its Dampier Salt operations in Western Australia.

During this initial stage, a safety driver rides in the vehicle to observe the truck’s performance and, if necessary, intervenes. In subsequent phases, additional autonomous Scania trucks will be added to develop vehicle-vehicle awareness and intelligent fleet supervisory controls.

Rob Atkinson, head of productivity and technical support, Rio Tinto, said: “We have seen automation create safer and more efficient operations in our business and this is a next step in evaluating options for delivering further improvements through the use of technology. We’re trialling this technology in trucks that are smaller than our traditional haul trucks. This has the potential to give us more flexibility in the way we operate in a number of areas across Rio Tinto.”

Björn Winblad, head of Scania Mining, said: “Mining sites given their high vehicle utilisation rates are ideal for testing new autonomous technology. The industry can reap the safety and productivity benefits of automation, and the experience gained here will be instrumental in developing fully autonomous solutions for other transport applications. It is very encouraging to note that the truck has been performing in a safe manner and in accordance with expectations with regards to the operations.”

Norway-based mining company Brønnøy Kalk AS is testing Volvo autonomous trucks to transport limestone from an open pit mine to a nearby port. The hub-to-hub solution for Brønnøy Kalk AS consists of limestone being transported by six autonomous Volvo FH trucks on a five kilometre stretch through tunnels between the mine itself and the crusher. Tests of this solution have been carried out during and it is expected to become fully operational by the end of 2019.

The agreement involves Brønnøy Kalk investing in a total transport service and paying for every tonne delivered. The autonomous Volvo FH trucks are managed by the operator of a wheel loader.

Norway-based mining company Brønnøy Kalk is using autonomous Volvo FH trucks to transport limestone from an open pit mine to a nearby port through tunnels.

Raymond Langfjord, managing director, Brønnøy Kalk, said: “Going autonomous will greatly increase our competitiveness in a tough market. We are continuously looking to increase our efficiency and productivity long-term, and we have a clear vision of taking advantage of new opportunities in technology and digital solutions.”

Sasko Cuklev, director-autonomous solutions, Volvo Trucks, said: “By working in a confined area on a predetermined route, we can find out how to get the best out of the solution and tailor it according to specific customer needs. This is all about collaborating to develop new solutions, providing greater flexibility and efficiency as well as increased productivity.”

The benefits of autonomous trucks can be enhanced by using wireless networks with high-availability, seamless mobility, world class quality of service (QoS), and the ability to support multiple applications and services, simultaneously. Accordingly, the industry is moving away from less predictable wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, and towards private LTE networks, that improve security, capacity, and overall performance within a multi-application environment.

Recently, Komatsu’s FrontRunner AHS was qualified to operate on private long-term evolution (LTE) mobile broadband technology. This is the mining industry’s first AHS enabled to run on private LTE in commercial operations. The company completed a year-long qualification program at the company’s proving grounds in Tucson, Arizona, conducting extensive testing of the FrontRunner AHS on Nokia’s Future X infrastructure, a leading provider of private LTE communication solutions for the mining industry.

Luiz Steinberg, Komatsu global officer and president/CEO of Modular Mining Systems, said: “This industry milestone represents a key step in Komatsu’s exploration of private LTE and highlights Nokia’s role as the leading global supplier of mission-critical solutions and services for the mining industry. We are firmly on our way to helping the industry move the next billion tons of material with autonomous technology. We have come together with Nokia to further this vision of delivering increased value to the mining industry.”

Kathrin Buvac, president of Nokia Enterprise, said: “Private LTE is a key element in the Nokia Bell Labs Future X architecture to help industries such as mining create an intelligent, dynamic, high-performance network that increases the safety, productivity and efficiency of their business. We are excited to be engaging the mining automation market with Komatsu, a powerhouse in the industry, to further highlight the benefits of Future X for mining companies as a strategic advantage in their operations.”

The FrontRunner AHS’s ten-year safety and productivity record in various mining environments has enabled Komatsu to accelerate the pace of AHS deployment. Komatsu is working with industry stakeholders towards standardization of interoperability between Komatsu and non-Komatsu autonomous vehicles.

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