Forget about driverless cars hitting the highways near you any time soon, that’s still years, if not decades away from being a reality. But a major development in driverless vehicles is already here, and it’s changing the face of mining as we know it. Driverless vehicles are already on their way to becoming commonplace in mine sites around Australia and they are changing the game.
A mine is the perfect place for autonomous vehicles to ply their trade given they drive exclusively on private land in an ultra-controlled setting, which has been well mapped. Furthermore, trucks on a mine site typically drive the same route over and over again. In this setting current technology allows a mine site to employ a completely driverless dump truck to transport spoil across the mine.
Rio Tinto introduced the Autonomous Haulage System System (AHS) into its operations nine years ago. Now they operate a fleet of 71 AHS trucks across three of its Western Australian Pilbara iron ore mines, moving 20% of the operations material. Couple this with Rio’s seven Autonomous Drill Systems (ADS) which drill production blast holes, and the Drones which measure stockpiles and constantly survey the mine and you have one of the world’s most advanced networks of autonomous machinery.
1,500 kilometers away in an air conditioned building in Perth a 400 hundred person strong team act as the ‘nerve centre’ for the mines operations. They monitor everything that happens at the mine, in real time, right down to the last truck.
This automation has completely transformed productivity at the Pilbara mines. According to Rio’s managing director of the Pilbara mines, Michael Gollschewski, “this technology is game changing.”
“Autonomous trucks reduce employee exposure to hazards and risks associated with operating heavy equipment, such as fatigue-related incidents, sprains and other soft tissue injuries, and exposure to noise and dust,” says Yandicoogina mining operations manager Josh Bennett.
He also noted that “There are obvious capital savings, in terms of setting up camps and flying people to site, and there are fewer people so there is less operating cost,”
Furthermore, while human drivers require regular breaks, the AHS trucks run almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. This has all culminated in the autonomous fleet outperforming the manned fleet by 14% since 2008.
Obviously, as this technology continues it’s inevitable roll out it will have a significant impact on jobs. Senior Lecturer at Curtin’s School of the Mines, Dr Carla Boehl, has had an upfront view of the changing nature of the industry as she has seen the opportunities available to her students shift.
"In terms of trades, there will be fewer jobs, but in terms of maintainers we still need them, we can't live without them,"
"All this technology, bit data and analytics will actually increase the number of jobs in more analytical work, it is a change from trade jobs to more analytical ones."