Epiroc & Nexgen SIMS partners demo fully autonomous solution for material handling at the face

Nexgen SIMS is a collaborative project run by a consortium of partners coordinated by Epiroc and partly funded by the European Union. It will be completed in April 2024 and aims to develop technologies, methods, and processes for the sustainable mines of the future.

The partners within Nexgen SIMS say they have developed and recently demonstrated a working solution for the work package: autonomous material handling at the face. The demo occurred at a depth of 750 m in Agnico Eagle’s Kittilä gold mine in Finland. It encompassed a fully autonomous cycle of material handling using battery-electric Epiroc underground loaders and mine trucks – evaluating the stope, filling the bucket, moving to a mining truck, and depositing the ore into the box, all without human intervention.

“The demo went perfectly well, meaning that we have demonstrated a viable autonomous solution for this process. In short, we have increased the TRL – technology readiness level – for autonomous mining,” says Vladimir Sysoev, Global Product Manager Deep Automation – Trucks, at Epiroc. The underground loader has LiDAR-based 3D and weight sensors and a processing unit with algorithms to control detection, manoeuvering and connectivity. The solution is integrated with 5G capability and depends on the site’s infrastructure for connectivity.

“These solutions wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. That’s also a result of the project, that we have properly tested 5G in an actual mining environment. Everything went according to the plan. It’s been interesting to see how both the predecessor LTE and 5G have developed over time, and they have proved to be very suitable for these applications. The 5G standard is excellent for automation and Big Data solutions, and it is also future proof with ample room for more capacity and reduced latency,” says Sysoev.

The demo contains three autonomous processes that are entirely novel to the global mining industry: evaluating the stope to decide where to dig, filling the bucket with the right amount of ore, and dumping the ore in the mine truck box while minimising spillage. The cycle of autonomous material handling at the face is complete in combination with autonomous tramming and dumping to and from the mine truck. An experienced operator can quickly scan the muck pile and decide where to start digging. The trick is to pick the right spot to excavate the pile evenly, working your way through it efficiently. In addition, stopes tend to be unstable, so there is always the risk of slides.

“Until now, we have been reliant on the human eye to decide where to dig, even if the digging itself can be done semi-autonomously. But here, we have developed algorithms that can make decisions based on the scanned data and feedback from the resistance in the pile. It was hard, but we solved it,” says Sysoev.

How do you know you have filled the bucket with the right amount of ore? That might be relatively easy for a human but much harder for a machine. Scanning the bucket is not feasible since the front of the loader is situated in a very harsh environment at the stope. Nexgen SIMS has solved the problem by measuring the weight in the bucket, thereby determining the bucket fill factor.

The standard procedure is to match a loader with a dumper so that three bucket loads will fill the box. The goal is to distribute the load evenly in the box while minimising spillage. “This was quite tricky to solve. We started by looking at how operators usually work – pick a good spot within the box, dump the load, then use the bucket to distribute the ore a bit if necessary. The algorithms we developed puts the first load in the front of the box, the second in the back, and then finally the third in the middle. The system can also use the bucket to press the ore a bit, which reflects the typical operator movements while dumping,” says Sysoev.

Safety is a major driving force for developing autonomous solutions. Minimising human presence in hazardous areas in mines is imperative, and the solution’s safety is also paramount. “The machines are smart enough to work independently, but for safety reasons they are constantly being monitored. There is a centralised server that orchestrates and manages the traffic in the mines. So, we need to know where the machines are, and how fast they are going, at all times. In addition, operators must have instant access to the machine in case anything goes wrong. For those reasons, the system is designed to immediately stop the machines in case communications goes down, even if it’s for less than a second,” says Sysoev.

Another result of solutions like these is increased productivity. “An experienced operator can on a good day probably move more ore, but one of the advantages of relying on algorithms is that there is consistency – you get the same result every time, which leads to better precision, planning possibilities and productivity in the long run. Consistency is one of the goals we have aimed to achieve.”

According to Jan Gustafsson, Project Manager for Nexgen SIMS at Epiroc, collaborative efforts between partners from a comprehensive set of backgrounds are the recipe for successful innovation now and in the future. “Partnership and cross-boundary cooperation is the way forward. Mining operations have become incredibly complex, and it’s simply not possible to innovate in silos anymore. We are open for more collaborative projects in the future. This is the way we need to work,” says Gustafsson.

He adds: “The Nexgen SIMS partnership has worked really well. We have continued to build on what we laid down during the first SIMS project, between 2016 and 2020, and further developed processes and workflows that have gotten results. We function well as a team. We have accomplished what we set out to do – to develop autonomous solutions and demonstrate them in a real production environment. The next step is to make a marketable product.”

Nexgen SIMS is a consortium of 13 partners collaborating in an EU-sponsored project to develop autonomous carbon-neutral, sustainable mining solutions, building on the successful SIMS project from 2017 to 2020. The partners are Epiroc Rock Drills, AFRY – ÅF Digital Solutions, Agnico Eagle Finland, Boliden Mineral, Ericsson, KGHM Cuprum, KGHM Polska Miedź, K+S Minerals and Agriculture, Luleå University of Technology (LTU), LTU Business, Mobilaris MCE, OZ Minerals and RWTH Aachen University. The project has had a budget of €16 million and has run from May 2021 to April 2024.