Tag Archives: 4G

Aqura to take on Australia’s 5G LTE underground mining challenge

Aqura Technologies has been awarded a grant from the Australian Government under the 5G Innovation Initiative to, it says, augment the organisation’s own development work to address the challenge of delivering underground 5G LTE.

The grant is an important step to overcome the technical and commercial barriers associated with operating next-generation broadband wireless networks in sub-surface environments, according to Aqura.

Aqura Chief Executive Officer, Travis Young, said the project was founded on extensive customer and industry feedback as critical to enable mining operators to unlock the benefits that surface operators had been enjoying for a number of years.

“With over 50% of mining in Australia being conducted underground and increasing, the industry is still playing catch-up with technology that is being widely utilised to great benefit in surface operations,” he said.

“Our track record and development work, coupled with the 5G Innovation Grant, will enable our team to work to deliver technical architectures and a validated commercial model which will enable and accelerate adoption.”

The 5G Innovation Initiative grant will complement investment already made by Aqura to deliver technical architectures, commercial model development and installation of a live Private 5G LTE network in an operating mine. The project leverages a lot of learnings from a 2017 project where Aqura successfully delivered Private 4G LTE in an underground mine in the Kalgoorlie region of Western Australia, Aqura said.

The focus of the program is to fast-track the enablement of applications and processes that are being adopted in surface operations so underground operators can realise the benefits of enhanced environmental, safety and productivity outcomes that advanced wireless communications can deliver, it added.

Aqura’s Chief Operations Officer, Alan Seery, said underground operators are wanting a kick-start to advance their technology capabilities.

“Many underground mines use processes and technologies that are decades old and operators want to leverage the latest technology, but the technical challenges and the commercial model to acquire can be prohibitive,” he said.

“We’ve learnt a lot through our previous work in underground, and we believe our new LTEaaS (LTE as a service) platform optimised to deliver next-generation private industrial operations networks will support a new commercial approach that will better suit the business models utilised by mining operators.

“And with new advances in radio access, we’re excited to have the opportunity to work with some very motivated partners to develop and make available new architectures which will bridge the underground connectivity gap.”

Many of Aqura’s core team were behind the first Private 4G LTE network in Australian resources, delivered Private 4G LTE underground and supported delivery of one of the first above-ground Private 5G LTE networks in north Queensland earlier this year, it said.

The project has kicked off with Aqura working with a large gold operator to commence scoping. Various partners have indicated support to validate applications, devices and processes around autonomy, condition monitoring, safety systems, data access, PTT communications and IoT sensors.

Comilog enlists help of JRC, Geka Telecom for Moanda 4G/LTE infrastructure

Comilog, a leading manganese miner and part of Eramet Group, has decided to build a Private 4G/LTE network in Moanda, Gabon, as part of an effort to modernise the operation.

JRC (Japan Radio Co Ltd) and Geka Telecom were selected to provide a turnkey solution. JRC will provide the LTE infrastructure for hundreds of subscribers and 4 RF sites, while GEKA Telecom will provide the full services.

Comilog, as part of its modernisation efforts, is investing in a modern and secured LTE infrastructure. This will see field staff equipped with ruggedised tablets and smartphones, with a target to digitalise the various processes to increase efficiency and reduce its use of paper. This is part of an overall project called Comilog 2020 to increase the capacity of the mine and to enhance the operation’s local added value.

JRC LTE infrastructure was chosen for the quality of its offer, JRC said. The proposed LTE infrastructure is designed to meet mission critical environment and performance. GEKA Telecom will provide its expertise for the settings of the network and the installation.

“We are very proud to contribute to the Comilog 2020 project,” Sato Katsuhiko, General Manager of 5G Project at JRC, said. “We are a specialist of wireless communication for mission critical networks. Projects such as Comilog 2020 are crucial for us. We aim to grow our private LTE/5G business significantly in the EMEA region.”

The Moanda mine is currently undergoing an expansion that will see a new mine open up on the Okouma plateau, 13 km to the north of Moanda. This could lead to 7 Mt/y of products being available for sale in 2023, compared with just over 4 Mt/y currently.

JRC, or Japan Radio Co Ltd, is a specialist of wireless infrastructure founded in 1915. Based in Japan and with offices across the world, it has provided complete Private LTE/5G networks since 2015.

GEKA Telecom, founded in 1982, has specialised in telecommunication networks in Africa, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, to facilitate access to communication for all.

Nokia’s Jadoul on keeping miners safe amid COVID-19

Workplace safety is a major objective of every mining company on the planet, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time perhaps, the primary danger may simply be getting too close while talking to our fellow team members, Marc Jadoul*, Strategic Marketing Director at Nokia, says.

In the mining industry, we are going to have to adapt our business practices to accommodate the current pandemic, and we have to be better prepared for similar events in the future. The pandemic has led to a re-thinking of certain safety protocols, procedures and personal protection, and it is accelerating the adoption of recent innovations that will improve workplace safety in other ways as well.

As the world has re-opened the economy, organisations such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US and the World Health Organization (WHO) have published recommendations for how to operate manufacturing and other business operations while still practicing social distancing and other aspects of workplace safety. These include having office employees telework where possible, staggering shifts to reduce the number of workers using lunch, break and washrooms at the same time, increasing physical space between employees in the workplace, wearing masks and even downsizing operations if necessary.

Given COVID-19’s ability to be spread by individuals who do not show symptoms, it is generally acknowledged that tracking contacts will be a key way to identify those who might have been exposed to a sick employee. Knowing the cost to the business of having to shut down a facility due to illness, management will need to work with public health authorities to implement practices that allow for the quick identification of suspected contacts, allow for testing and quarantine of workers in the case of an outbreak in their operation and, in some jurisdictions, be able to show compliance with these practices.

Marc Jadoul, Strategic Marketing Director at Nokia

The technologies needed to do this are not so far away. In fact, they already exist in industries where operating environments have residual risks or require robust control measures in ways that are similar to what will be needed to protect people from contracting the virus. Some of these practices have already been implemented in mines as well as nuclear facilities and high-tech chip fabricators. With some adaptation, it is not hard to see how these technologies can be adapted more broadly to make the mine workplace of the future nearly virus-free.

From a larger safety management perspective, the ultimate goal is to create a real-time, dynamic picture of what is happening with people, assets and environmental conditions at all times – what is known as ‘situational awareness’. It is crucial for conducting forensic analysis to understand the pattern of interactions and identify possible transmission paths so as to limit exposure and trigger remediation protocols, including testing and quarantining. Much of this already exists, but simply needs to be adapted to the current outbreak.

The ultimate objective of situational awareness is having 360° visibility of people, assets, infrastructure and environmental conditions. Because what you don’t see, you can’t manage. Which is important, not only for saving lives, but also for preventing productivity losses and increasing operational efficiency.

This full digital awareness of everything going on in the workplace is the main thrust of Industry 4.0, which brings together several technology streams: low-powered IoT sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, edge computing and next-generation wireless connectivity. These technologies combine to allow for the automation of repetitive processes, improved efficiency of operations, preventative maintenance of assets, quality control and enhanced situational awareness.

Applying these technologies to deal with COVID-19 will help to solve many of the new workplace constraints identified above. For instance, there are types of digital smart personal protective equipment (PPE) that incorporate wearable sensors and communications devices. They communicate with the operations control centre and could be used to trace employee movements, enforce geo-fenced areas deemed too dangerous for entry, or sense environmental contaminants and warn employees who have had excessive exposure to leave the area and follow decontamination protocols.

With some small adjustments, smart PPE and wearables could be deployed in many operations to enforce safe distancing between employees, using software to digitally map out work zones. They could warn employees when they are entering crowded areas or no-go zones. They could improve safety and efficiency during mustering and evacuation. And they could also enable management to forensically track past exposure of employees to those who have tested positive for the virus.

With the ongoing spread of COVID-19, mining companies need to find ways to enforce physical distancing among miners in order to keep operations open and miners safe

If sifting through location data for all the employees in a large mine sounds like a nightmare, this is where AI comes to the rescue. Sophisticated analytics software already exists that can analyse location data to look for correlations. It isn’t much of a stretch to adapt this software to smart PPE data that tracks worker movements in the facility – as long as unions and laws allow for it. This kind of software also exists to analyse video footage from CCTV cameras. All of this analysis can be used to trace infection vectors and to re-assure health authorities that protocols are being enforced on the job site.

One of the important enablers of Industry 4.0 use cases is the existence of highly reliable, secure wireless connectivity. The key to end-to-end awareness of operations is ubiquitous connectivity. Because of privacy concerns, that connectivity should be very secure. To support video and the large amount of data that can be generated within a fully automated facility, it also has to have bandwidth capacity as well as be able to support low latency edge computing. Geo-positioning and geo-fencing services for employees and mobile machines need more precise coordinates than can be provided by GPS – and need to work underground and in-building as well as on surface.

Delivering all these essential capabilities is fortunately available with today’s 4.9G/LTE and tomorrow’s 5G industrial wireless networks. Early generation wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, were designed for connectivity to best-effort networks. They are not highly reliable, secure or capable of providing mobility and geo-positioning services. Cellular-based 4G services, on the other hand, have been used in public mobile networks for a decade and have never been compromised. 5G is designed to be even more secure and has a number of features, like ultra-low latency, that are specifically intended for industrial automation use cases.

COVID-19 is likely to be a reality we have to live with for several years. If we are lucky and develop a vaccine quickly, it may be a short-term problem. But the scientists have been warning us about the possibility of pandemics of this nature for decades. This will not be the last. The good news is that the same Industry 4.0 technologies that are transforming our workplaces can be harnessed in this fight. Industrial IoT, edge computing, AI/machine learning and industrial-strength wireless networking will play a key role in ensuring the safety of our workers and our ability to come out of this crisis stronger than before.

*Marc Jadoul leads Nokia’s marketing efforts for the mining industry, working with key stakeholders across the business to evangelise digital technologies for creating safer, more efficient and productive mines

Talking mining truck automation with China’s pioneer TAGE Idriver

In a world first, Paul Moore spoke to the senior management of TAGE Idriver, in Beijing, the leading Chinese player in mining truck autonomy solutions, both for new machines and retrofits. CEO Professor Yu Guizhen, CTO Huang Liming and Head of Marketing Li Qingshe gave their insight on this huge and rapidly growing market.

PM: Can you give some background on TAGE Idriver as a robotics solution company and how you came to be active in the mining sector?

TAGE Idriver CEO, Professor Yu Guizhen

YG: Founded in 2016, Beijing TAGE Idriver Technology Co Ltd (hereafter referred to as TAGE) is a high-tech enterprise focussed on the research and development of autonomous driving technology for open-pit mining vehicles. Open-pit mining is regarded as one of the most ideal applications for autonomous driving technology implementation as it involves a relatively restricted area where vehicle speed is low and the transportation routes are well managed. As such, we took the unmanned robotic mining truck as our chosen breakthrough point, to try to help to solve the long standing issues with open-pit mining haulage such as frequent accidents, driver recruitment difficulty and persistently high cost. And we have achieved a lot so far – our system has already been successfully implemented in the Bayan Obo iron ore and rare earths mine (Baogang Group) and the Huolinhe coal mines (SPIC) in Inner Mongolia.

PM: It seems only recently the major mining equipment OEMs in China were working on their own autonomy solutions, but now independent players are dominating…what has changed?

YG: Unmanned transportation solutions for open-pit mines involve complex systems requiring not only vehicle technology, but also autonomous driving technology, dispatching and fleet management technology, and vehicle communication technology. To independently build all those capabilities into one platform is a tough challenge for the Chinese traditional mining equipment OEMs. This is why independent players with advanced autonomous driving technology but working in close cooperation with the OEMs are in a more competitive position to deliver open-pit mine unmanned transportation solutions in China.

PM: The market for these independent autonomy system tech providers seems very competitive in China; several other companies are also active – what would you say makes TAGE Idriver stand out from the rest?

HL: First I would say system integrity. As the earliest player engaged in the development of unmanned transportation solutions for open-pit mining and the first to put them into practical operation in China, TAGE has delivered complete solutions and has a mature product portfolio including OBU (Onboard Unit) product series, RSU (Road Side Unit) and Cloud Control Platform. The OBU product series includes unmanned mine truck terminal products, bulldozer vehicle terminal products, excavator vehicle terminal products, crushing station terminal products and external on-road vehicles terminal products. Then there is functional adaptability. Open-pit mine transportation is complex, especially in China. On the basis of intellectualisation and interconnection of the unmanned mine trucks and the cloud based dispatching control platform, TAGE’s products seamlessly connect every step of mining transportation process, so as to make the system capable of working in an actual operational scenario, which is extremely critical for commercial implementation.

TAGE Idriver CTO, Huang Liming

Then there is system reliability and multiple safety aspects. TAGE’s OBU products are designed in accordance with vehicle grade certification to meet the operational reliability requirements of the harsh environments (low temperature, vibration, etc) in the mining area. Our system has achieved multiple redundant security designs, which mainly includes CCU (Central Control Unit) security redundancy, wireless network redundancy, cloud platform DHBS (Dual Machine Hot Backup System) redundancy, etc. Finally I would mention engineering design ability. TAGE has a vertically structured and expert team in the open-pit mining industry, who have rich experience in engineering design and system simulation verification of unmanned transportation in mining.

PM: Is the main potential currently working with equipment OEMs or the mines directly, or both?

YG: Both, I have mentioned already Baogang and SPIC as mining customers we have ongoing projects with and we are also closely cooperating with top Chinese OEMs like Inner Mongolia North Hauler (NHL), XCMG and Shaanxi Tonly.

PM: The Chinese market is also very price sensitive. How is it possible to provide these complex technologies to these mines at a low enough price they will accept?

TAGE Idriver Head of Marketing, Li Qingshe

LQ: In China, the ordinary consumer market is very price sensitive, but for high-tech production equipment, price is not the decisive factor. TAGE’s unmanned system is capable of creating substantial additional benefits to customers such as labour cost savings, increased operation time, reduced fuel cost and tyre wear cost reduction, and most importantly, zero accident risk to operators. Meanwhile, our prices are still very competitive – the ROI of our system is very attractive to most of our potential customers.

PM: Chinese mines are not known for having extensive comms networks or using the latest fleet management systems. How do you ensure your mining customers meet the minimum standards your systems need to work in terms of networks?

HL: When it comes to telecommunication, China has a good upstream and downstream ecosystem, and wireless communication networks have been widely deployed in mining areas in China. Some large state-owned mining areas have already deployed 4G wireless private networks, so as to realise fleet management and video monitoring under manned transportation conditions. Along with the rapid introduction of unmanned transportation in China’s open-pit mining areas, 4G private networks or 5G networks have been mainly chosen as the mainstream choices for new mining area construction and existing mining area network upgrades. Currently, the major equipment manufacturers and communication service operators are actively cooperating with us to promote unmanned transportation and 5G.

PM: Are Chinese mines now widely trialling LTE and 5G networks? Do you think many mines will go straight to these latest technologies?

HL: As I said, telecommunication technology in China is developing rapidly. China’s Government has spared no efforts to promote the macro strategy of ‘New Infrastructure Construction’. In this positive environment, many mine areas have begun promoting 5G demonstration projects, and TAGE has also carried out 5G demonstration implementation at one of our unmanned transportation projects.

PM: Is there potential for autonomous mining in Chinese underground mines and is this something already happening? Is it a market TAGE Idriver is involved in yet?

YG: China has a large number of underground mines but in many of them mechanised hauling with mobile vehicles is not the major means of transportation – many of these mines instead use conveyors, skip haulage, etc. But we are aware that a variety of autonomous transportation equipment types are being experimented with in Chinese underground mining, however, TAGE is currently focusing on the open-pit mining industry only.

PM: How would you say your system differs from those offered in the global market by Cat, Komatsu, Hitachi and ASI?

Wide-body dumpers, sometimes called tippertrucks, are used in their 100s at many Chinese mines, so their automation is a big part of the unmanned projects taking place in China

HL: To start with, TAGE’s system designs are based on China’s unique mining area circumstances and transportation process requirements, which are often more difficult and more complex than the mining situations in which overseas counterparts are working. In order to ensure continuity, efficiency, and reliability, we must consider in our offering allowing switching between various driving modes (such as from manned to unmanned or to remote control etc) so as to adapt to the unique characteristics of China’s mining areas. Secondly, the vehicle models utilised in China’s mining areas are quite diverse. There are many brands and types of rigid mine trucks but also many types of non-rigid wide-body dumpers, sometimes called tipper trucks, in China, so our OBUs have to adapt to the control characteristics of various truck models to serve the different customers. In the mining areas where wide-body dumpers are deployed, there are usually hundreds of them in the fleet and sometimes more than a thousand, which places harsh requirements in terms of capacity and reliability on the cloud-based dispatching and control system. Finally, there are a large number of existing mine trucks in China, so to offer autonomous modification solutions ie retrofits for those existing trucks has huge commercial potential. We have already accumulated rich engineering experience and made considerable commercial progress in this field.

PM: What is making big mining groups in China look at automation, is the major push a drive towards safety or productivity, or both?

YG: Both. Productivity is obviously important, but safety is probably the top concern as the Chinese Government has issued strict legal rules that impose stringent safety requirements on mine management.

PM: Most of the Chinese examples of autonomous fleets I have read about seem to be closed loop trials – are any Chinese mines actually using autonomous fleets in normal production yet?

LQ: The attempts at unmanned transportation of mining vehicles in China started much later than that in other countries. The whole industry is still in the transformation stage from small batch trial operations to large scale commercial implementation. As the leading player and the first to get commercial contracts in China, TAGE is standing at the forefront of the industry both in terms of technology maturity and user acceptance. We achieved multi-fleet unmanned operation in Bayan Obo iron mine in 2019, and by the end of 2020, all the mine trucks there will have been modified and fully put into unmanned transportation. For the non-rigid wide-body dumpers, we recently signed a large contract for 200 unmanned dumpers in the Ordos coal mining region. This project will be completed within two years, and the first batch of 50 dumpers will be in operation by the end of 2020. Some other contracts are also under negotiation, so we can say that the large scale commercial implementation phase is already underway.

PM: I have not seen reference to autonomy being applied at some of the largest operations like the Zhungeer, Pingshuo coal mines or the Julong Copper mine in Tibet, are these operations also looking at autonomy?

LQ: TAGE’s existing customers like Baogang and SPIC are giants in their respective fields. And the large mining groups Zhungeer, Pingshuo and Julong that you mentioned have also been paying close attention to unmanned transportation. We are communicating with them closely and they have clearly expressed their intention to carry out unmanned transportation projects going forward.

PM: The focus currently seems to be mining trucks. What about blasthole drill or excavator autonomy – is this an area you are also working on and can you give any examples?

HL: At present, in order to ensure the high efficiency of transportation, we have only developed and deployed unmanned systems on mine trucks. As for blasthole drill rigs, excavators, bulldozers and other auxiliary equipment, although they are still operator controlled, we have upgraded them with vehicle terminal devices to enable them to locate and interactively cooperate with unmanned mine truck fleets.

PM: On the truck side, is the focus mainly on larger trucks or are you also working on projects involving smaller trucks, eg 100 t class and smaller, including the tipper non-rigid trucks that are very common in Chinese mines?

HL: Our current solution is adaptable to both large mine trucks and non-rigid wide-body dumpers. The two types of truck are mainly different in terms of vehicle control. In addition, the transportation technical procedure is different in the mine areas using the two types of truck, so we have to do adaptive development to meet the specific needs of each fleet type.

TAGE Idriver says it is at the forefront of the mining truck autonomy industry in China both in terms of technology maturity and user acceptance

PM: How significant is your recently signed deal with NHL to work with them to produce a new NTE200AT truck – is this the first time your system will have been applied to a ‘new’ mining truck as opposed to a retrofit?

YG: Yes and no, we started to modify NHL’s existing mine trucks with unmanned technology via retrofit in 2018, and have also jointly developed drive-by-wire trucks with a pre-installed unmanned system. This year we are confident we will carry out pre-installation with our proven solution on a large scale with the new NTE200AT 186 t truck fleet for SPIC, which will be a new milestone for us and for NHL.

PM: Do you see a lot of opportunities for TAGE Idriver outside of the China market such as where Chinese trucks are being sold (eg the new NHL deal with Yancoal), or where you are able to work with older or more basic truck designs, such as in India?

YG: We hope of course to work together with Chinese mine equipment OEMs to serve their customers both in China but also all over the world, as the use of Chinese mining trucks in the global market is increasing.

Miners to further leverage mobile tech for real-time data access, survey shows

A new study looking into the use of mobile technologies to optimise and transform workings from remote locations indicates real-time data access is defining the field strategies of mining companies.

The ‘Future of Field Operations’ report from Zebra Technologies Corp, which calls itself “an innovator at the edge of the enterprise with solutions and partners that enable businesses to gain a performance edge”, revealed field service providers in the telecommunications, manufacturing, construction, mining, and agriculture industries globally are expected to increase the use of mobile technologies to optimise and transform workflows in the field.

Picking out mining specifically, 86% of respondents to the survey said real-time data access drives their mobile device usage in the field, with the majority of organisations (82%) now considering themselves “mobile-first” businesses, Zebra said.

Considering this statistic, it was hardly surprising to learn faster wireless networks (4G/5G) were driving mining company investments in new field operations technologies. In the exploration space, these wireless networks will help connect those in the field to cloud-based platforms where they can upload and download data to make real-time decisions on projects around the globe.

Drilling down the mining-specific stats further, it showed a positive correlation between the effective use of mobile devices and productivity, efficiency, worker satisfaction, and equipment availability. “Organisations who have implemented mobile devices have already achieved many benefits with 61% indicating they increased productivity and efficiency, 50% experienced improvements in worker satisfaction and 46% increased equipment availability,” Zebra said.

According to Zebra’s report, predictive mobile usage is expected to more than double over the next five years. Eight out of 10 mining organisations acknowledged that data is evolving, which requires them to look at their business in new ways, Zebra said. This is expected to see the use of “predictive mobile solutions” rise.

When quizzed about adequate resourcing for mobile device use, just 21% of mining organisations said they were assigning the right resource to the right issue at the right time with the use of mobile devices.

This compared favourably with 16% of all organisations across the telecommunications, manufacturing, construction, mining, and agriculture industries that Zebra quizzed. In five years’ time, the mining industry representatives expected this number to reach 46%, according to Zebra.

Vale and Vivo sign 4G/LTE deal to bolster mine site automation

Vale says it has signed an agreement with Vivo (Telefônica Brasil) to implement a private 4G/LTE network at its operations in Brazil.

The network will help the miner optimise its use of autonomous equipment, which requires a wide coverage area and high traffic capacity for a significant amount of data. Almost R$21 million ($5 million) will be invested in this project, Vale said.

This will make Vale and Vivo the first companies to deploy a private LTE network with these characteristics in the country, according to Vale.

From the first half of 2020, the network will be available at Carajás (Pará) mine, where three autonomous drills are already operating and autonomous trucks will be adopted soon. Then, this innovation will be applied at Brucutu mine (pictured), in São Gonçalo do Rio Abaixo (Minas Gerais), where 13 autonomous trucks operate. This network also has the potential to be used to connect dam monitoring instruments, the company said.

Vale said of the network: “It will boost Vale’s autonomous vehicles program, which aims to increase safety by removing employees from the risk area. Autonomous equipment also generates operational efficiency and sustainability gains increasing equipment useful life by almost 15% and reducing fuel consumption and maintenance costs by almost 10%.”

Vivo’s solution was chosen due to its reliability and experience in private LTE networks, Vale said. Safety and the possibility of converging different types of traffic on the same network – such as data, voice, and video – were also considered. At Brucutu mine, for example, the autonomous trucks currently operating on a WiMax network, which will be migrated to the new network in the future.

Gustavo Vieira, Vale’s IT director, said: “In addition to the benefits regarding data volume and coverage, the use of LTE is also an important investment due to it is scalability; all mobile phone technology development must comply with this standard from now on. Fourth generation is already being used; thus, technology upgrades will cost less than those for technologies that are not commonly used.”

Alex Salgado, Vivo B2B vice president, said a private LTE solution meets specific needs of businesses while meeting the requirements of mission-critical applications that demand “high safety, mobility in production lines, free-interference spectrum, and traffic prioritisation, as well as connecting a high volume of IoT devices in an open and widely available ecosystem”.

The partnership will enable Vale to use Vivo’s services in these regions. Vivo will also provide 4G coverage, which will help communication among employees of the mine operations.

In Latin America, this partnership model is only currently available in Chile, which is being tested. Vale also uses private 4G/LTE networks in its operations in Canada and Malaysia, it said.

Why the Pilbara leads the way in haul truck automation

A presentation at last month’s AusIMM Iron Ore 2019 Conference, in Perth, Western Australia, made it clear that the state’s steel raw material miners are leading the way when it comes to applying autonomous haulage systems (AHS) in open-pit mining.

Richard Price, Manager of Projects for Mining Technicians Group Australia (MTGA), has been involved in this technology space for a number of years, having initially witnessed an automation trial involving two trucks at Alcoa’s Willowdale bauxite mine, in Pinjarra, all the way back in 1994.

At the conference, his paper set out the state of play in Pilbara when it comes to AHS, explaining: the first commercial scale trial in iron ore took place at Rio Tinto’s West Angelas operation in 2008, there are two original equipment manufacturer (OEM) AHS operating in the Pilbara – Caterpillar Command for Hauling and the Komatsu FrontRunner – and the three major iron ore miners (Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals Group (FMG)) were leaders when it comes to using autonomous trucks.

FMG is the largest operator of autonomous trucks in the Pilbara – making it effectively the largest in the world – with 128 at the end of June (according to the miner’s June quarter results). Rio, meanwhile, had 96 up and running, with BHP having a total of 50, as per publicly released data.

“FMG has plans to automate all of their trucks, including the first non-OEM trucks on an alternate OEM system,” Price said, with him adding that the company has now automated a number of Komatsu 930E vehicles using the Caterpillar Command for Hauling AHS: a world first.

“Additionally, FMG is also operating multiple Caterpillar OEM trucks onsite, in another world first having three classes of truck on the one system at the same site (789D, 793F and 930E),” he said.

While Komatsu, historically, has more time in the field with commercial autonomous applications – it surpassed 2 billion tons of autonomous haulage in November – than Caterpillar, the Illinois-based OEM has received more global success, being able to point to AHS deployments in the oil sands of Canada, the coal mines of British Columbia and Vale’s iron ore operations in Brazil.

“With regards to the on-board AHS componentry, the Komatsu system is somewhat simpler than the Caterpillar system,” Price said. “The significant difference is that Caterpillar utilises a LiDAR (Velodyne 64-layer), with RADAR, whilst the Komatsu system uses RADAR only. However there are additional differences in the on-board controls – the Caterpillar system is known for having more significant vehicle on-board computing power, versus the Komatsu system which places greater reliance on the wireless network whilst performing most of the calculations on the server side.”

Even with the on-board computing power of Caterpillar’s system, the performance of these trucks only tends to be as good as the communications infrastructure they are tied to.

Presently, only the Komatsu system has announced successful trials of using 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network technology as the communications system which commands the trucks, with the Caterpillar system presently reliant on wireless networking technology, “of which all current implementations rely upon (globally)”, Price said.

One of the issues with such technologies is the trucks stop driving, or operating, if they lose communications, with the trucks communicating, via this network, their position to each other and directional heading and speed.

The way the trucks re-start their driving routine is, at present, via manual visual inspection, which can be a process that takes time.

And, according to Price, a significant problematic issue with trucks stopping driving across all the Pilbara sites is the triggering of a false positive object detection.

“These are often referred to as ‘ODs’ on the various sites which utilise AHS,” Price said, with many operators blaming undulations in the road, pot holes, or small rocks for these occurrences.

Again, manual inspection is normally required as part of an operation’s procedure for re-starting the autonomous trucks.

Out in front

Despite these communication and OD problems, Western Australia still leads the way when it comes to automation with the Pilbara hosting around 75% of the circa-370 trucks operating globally.
What is the reason for this? Price highlighted five bullet points in his speech:

  • High cost of operators – annual salaries for truck operations are, in general, over A$100,000 ($68,882);
  • Ease of implementation – “the Pilbara miners generally have open ground, and have had an opportunity to trial the technology in a dedicated work area prior to a site-wide implementation,” Price said, adding that the topography has also made it simpler to install the required communications systems;
  • Scale and longevity of operations – Previously cost-benefit analysis of AHS included an approximate cutoff point of 12 Mt/y total material movement, which equates to six to eight off-highway haul trucks, Price said. All operations exceed this, as well as having long mine lives;
  • The fact that all the sites which have presently deployed AHS are currently fly-in/fly-out mines which transport the staff to site from their point-of-hire, and;
  • Experience of technology and processes in the Pilbara – miners in the region have long-term familiarity with fleet management systems and technology adoption.

Price said: “Western Australia does not necessarily have any unique or special advantage, however, it has made sense for Pilbara iron ore operators to implement AHS for the reasons outlined above.”

The benefits

MTGA’s Price pointed to several quotes from the mining companies themselves to explain the benefits of automation.

Rio Tinto, in 2018, said: “On average, each autonomous truck was estimated to have operated about 700 hours more than conventional haul trucks during 2017 and around 15% lower load and haul unit costs.”

FMG, in the same year, said it was seeing 32% productivity improvements with autonomous trucking.

Vale, meanwhile, previously told Mining.com: “The adoption of autonomous trucks at Brucutu (iron ore mine, in Brazil) is expected to reduce fuel consumption by more than 10%. Maintenance costs, in turn, should fall by another 10% and off-road truck tyres, which cost up to $40,000, are expected to have 25% lower wear. The overall gains translate into a 15% increase in equipment life, reducing investments in new acquisitions and reducing carbon dioxide emissions at the same time.”

Price said: “There are clearly differing metrics being monitored by these three operators at present. However, irrespective of the metrics monitored, AHS obviously has had a significant impact on the operating environment.

“It appears that the increase in utilisation of the autonomous trucks is the most significant benefit that they provide. The decrease in costs is also helpful, but the increase in predictability of the truck fleet is what drives the actual benefit.

“A number of materially measurable but difficult to quantify benefits exist from the rendering of trucks autonomous as well. These include less maintenance, better tyre wear (or increased tyre life), reduced fuel costs (for the same tonnage output) and better overall truck performance.”

For instance, Komatsu has previously said the optimised automatic controls of AHS reduce sudden acceleration and abrupt steering, resulting in a 40% improvement in tyre life compared with conventional operations.

And, of course, there are the numerous safety benefits that come with using automated haul trucks.

The future

While Price believes that mining will continue to become more autonomous, he said the mine of the future was likely to involve the automatic distribution of data files that trucks would work off without human involvement.

“For now, technologies such as LTE for better communications network coverage, the use of drones, long-range cameras or other autonomous ground vehicles to conduct the manual visual inspection and other autonomous equipment will be implemented,” he said.

He added: “It is likely that there will be a continuum of development over the next 20-30 years.

“Mining companies and OEMs will have a lot to learn from automotive vehicle automation. Obviously, there are more cars on the roads than there are off-highway haulage trucks on minesites. Therefore the general costs of automation kits will come down, and there will be an opportunity to conduct operations in a GPS-denied environment.

“Already, the costs of select items such as the LiDAR utilised by the Caterpillar system have halved in price since they were used a decade ago. Solid state LiDARs, as opposed to rotational, are being implemented in the automotive industry already.”

He pointed to MINExpo 2016, in Las Vegas, when Komatsu showcased its cabless, driverless truck as one development to look out for.

“It is predicted that in the longer-term future (ie 20-30 years’ time), cabs will be an additional and expensive option to add onto an off-highway heavy haulage truck,” he said.

“Whilst the future is autonomous, it will be technologically more advanced than the present technologies,” he concluded, adding that, given its head start, one would expect the Pilbara iron ore industry to deploy these technologies first.

MTGA’s Richard Price has also written a business case study on AHS, published by AusIMM – www.ausimmbulletin.com/feature/autonomous-haulage-systems-the-business-case/ – and, in partnership with Whittle Consulting’s Nick Redwood, put together an Autonomous Haulage Systems Financial Model Assessment – www.whittleconsulting.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Autonomous-Haulage-Study-Report-Rev-F.pdf

Aitik gets connected to LTE network as Boliden looks at 5G future

Boliden has, for the past few years, been testing out 4G and 5G networks at its mines in the Nordic region and recently went live with 4G (LTE) network services at its Aitik open-pit copper mine in Sweden, Fredrik Kauma, Project Manager, told attendees at the recent Mines and Technology conference in London.

The company, one of the mining sector’s leaders when it comes to employing innovative technology, installed its first underground Wi-Fi network in 2013 and has since come a long way on this connectivity journey.

Today, all of Boliden’s mines have complete Wi-Fi coverage, with the network consisting of some 3,000 installed access points and additional hardware, Kauma said. The company uses this for voice communication and positioning, but also other services such as remote control, machine-to-machine interactions and general data or information access.

In 2016, the company installed a small 4G network in one of its underground mines. Now, multiple upgrades later, the network includes the latest 4G features, in addition to elements considered “borderline” 5G, Kauma said. He credited a close co-operation with Ericsson and its research organisation for this installation as well as the Swedish mobile network operator Telia.

The 4G/5G network covers about 1.8 km of tunnels plus 10,000 m² of other areas (production/workshop/offices/canteen) with relatively few pieces of radio equipment, according to Kauma.

Coverage of a similar area with Wi-Fi would require about three times as many access points, he pointed out.

Kauma said: “We use our 4G/5G network to:

  • “Test and compare connectivity-related capabilities – network speed, coverage, quality, etc;
  • “Learn about operation and maintenance; how to roll systems out, what to monitor, key performance indicators, etc;
  • “Understand more of the business side – what work to do in-house/outsource, what should be part of a service level agreement, etc.”

A direct outcome of this test network has been the recently addition of 4G network services at Aitik, one of Europe’s largest and most efficient open-pit copper mines.

This will allow the company to, primarily, carry out accurate remote control of its fleet of Epiroc Pit Viper blasthole drill rigs.

“But, long-term we believe it will replace our existing production Wi-Fi network,” Kauma said.

The future in 5G

While Wi-Fi does offer Boliden much in terms of connectivity, it cannot match 4G/5G when it comes to robustness and coverage. This is part of the reason the company is pursuing developments with 5G technology.

Equipment tracking is one area that could potentially be improved with 5G, Kauma said.

Today Boliden currently uses “passive” Wi-Fi tags for this task, with active antennas mounted on mining vehicles. The signal reflection is only picked up if the tags face the direction of the active antenna and the vehicle with antenna passes close by. While this system adds a lot of value, it does not currently offer the reliability Boliden would like to see, he said.

With 5G, Boliden expects to have “active”, as opposed to passive, tags, which transmit information on a pre-determined basis.

What Kauma termed “advanced remote control” operation is another area set to benefit from 5G connectivity.

The company already has remote control operations today, but it is either line-of-sight or a pre-determined, repetitive type of remote operation; not advanced.

In advanced remote operations, the performance of the wireless communications network has a direct impact on how well the operator can handle the machine, with control responsiveness and picture quality the main factors here.

According to Kauma, low latency will greatly improve the real-time aspects required for secure and efficient handling of vehicles, machinery and other equipment such as drills, hammers, shovels, etc.

In addition, the Quality of Service concept, where priority of connection is given to certain customers, will guarantee bandwidth needs for a detailed enough video stream to the remote operator – even on a heavily loaded network, he said.

“Higher data rates and increased network capacity will enable remote control on a larger scale than what’s possible on today’s 4G technology,” Kauma said.

The improved connectivity expected to come with employing 5G will also be beneficial for wearable technologies, which Boliden has been trialling to help improve the safety and well-being of employees.

The company recently tested out use of a prototype “smart vest” at one of its underground mines for, primarily, proximity detection, but also to “gain a better understanding of other possibilities that comes with this technology”, Kauma said.

The prototype vest was the result of research cooperation between Boliden, Ericsson, clothing company Helly Hansen and technology firm LightFlex Sweden AB.

In addition to the standard proximity detection functions, lights or reflectors warn the wearer as well as surrounding personnel of potential dangers through different flashing/blinking patterns.

Together with advance camera technology, the lights also aid autonomous machinery to automatically detect humans in dark environments.

Boliden would like to, in the near-future, use wearable technology for the monitoring of employees in physically-demanding environments; for analysis of the immediate environment surrounding employees (extreme temperatures, dangerous air quality, strong vibrations or sounds); and for positioning and situational awareness (ie warnings for approaching vehicles).

Key ingredients to make this a reality include a reduction in power consumption – low power means smaller and longer lasting batteries – a fall in cost, enabling the company to equip its entire workforce, and better network coverage and reliability – hence the use of 5G.

“If 5G delivers on its promise, it will be a critical component enabling wearable technology in an industrial environment like ours,” Kauma concluded.