Seeing Komatsu’s Arizona Proving Grounds (AZPG) in person, it is easy to understand why the OEM is in a leading position when it comes to both surface mining automation and electrification.
The 660-acre (270-ha) facility is a living and breathing example of mining’s past, present and future; touring round, one can see 20-plus-year-old machines, the latest -5 ultra-class haul trucks and concept vehicles that will form the basis for future commercial autonomous and/or electric solutions.
These concept vehicles – at least when IM visited in November – included the company’s EVX battery proof of concept vehicle and the cabless IAHV autonomous mining truck concept.
The EVX is based off the basic 860E platform (a 254-t payload machine) and was shown off at MINExpo 2021. Prior to that, it had been testing out its all-battery power functionality at AZPG.
The IAHV, which debuted at MINExpo 2016, was developed by Komatsu as an unstaffed vehicle designed to maximise the advantages of such operation. It remains on show, with the company incorporating several learnings from this vehicle into its standard Electric Drive Trucks (EDT) and autonomous products.
Pat Singleton, Product Director, EDT, refers to AZPG as the “ultimate laboratory to be able to bring unique mining concepts to life”.
He added: “The testing we do at AZPG gives us the opportunity to reduce product development risk and take the validation process one step further before the products make it to the mine.”
The original focus at AZPG was the EDT product line, yet, as Komatsu has expanded its product offerings, more solutions continue to be tested or validated at the facility each year.
This testing is extensive, as was made obvious to IM while navigating an autonomous vehicle ‘assault course’ and hearing about new wet- and dry-disc brake trial combinations, higher speed tramming on autonomous haul trucks and more.
It is not just trucks subject to these try outs either, with hydraulic shovels, surface drill rigs, water trucks, dozers and other vehicles having a presence on site.
“If anything, the importance of AZPG has increased as technology has continued to evolve,” Singleton said. “AZPG allows for a single location to harmonise development efforts of all the Komatsu entities, providing research and development into our products.”
What’s more, the facility is located in Arizona’s renowned copper heartland.
This has been very useful for Komatsu, with Asarco’s Mission mine next door to the facility representing a real life mine site testing opportunity for solutions that have graduated from AZPG.
AZPG has 23 full-time staff, but its desk count is much higher, indicating the number of visitors and partners AZPG welcomes on a weekly basis from across the globe.
Some of these visitors include FrontRunner® autonomous haulage system (AHS) customers, who have, more recently, been invited to send operators to the facility for invaluable training ahead of planned autonomous deployments.
Anthony Cook, Vice President, Autonomous Systems, Mining Technology Solutions, told IM that this approach is enabling mining operations to leverage more of the benefits of AHS from day one of deployment, reducing the need to conduct a ‘soft start’ with the technology as operators come to terms with the transition from staffed to autonomous operations.
A representative from Komatsu’s dealer network was receiving training on the AHS system during IM’s visit, with Cook confirming another major mining customer and Komatsu distributors had sent operators to Arizona earlier in 2022 ahead of a planned deployment in 2023.
AHS developments are a key focus area for AZPG, with the on-site trucks testing out many different scenarios that customers could experience at their operations.
Software updates make up many of the ongoing FrontRunner AHS developments, but the company also continues to explore the use of more sensors and cameras on board its vehicles for obstacle detection and positioning. This is all geared towards improving visualisation, communication and safety, reducing potential false positives during operation and ultimately helping to improve productivity.
As for software upgrades to FrontRunner AHS, all developments are initially tested in a bench environment where the company can simulate the system. This may be within the former Modular Mining facility, also in Tucson, or at another one of Komatsu’s many testing hubs.
“Once it has passed virtual testing then final functional and stability testing is validated at AZPG before release to the customer,” Singleton said.
Some recent testing related to mixed fleet operations of staffed and autonomous trucks that originated in the lab to later emerge at AZPG has since led to a FrontRunner first at Anglo American’s Los Bronces mine in Chile.
The mining company only recently started its AHS deployment at the copper mine, initially going live with ten 930E-5 trucks, but Cook confirmed to IM that these vehicles are now interacting with staffed trucks in the mining environment.
“We’ve got off to a very strong start at Los Bronces, with Anglo American really embracing the technology and pushing it to its limits,” he said.
The full Los Bronces deployment could see 62 electric drive Komatsu 930E trucks running by 2024.
Those who visited MINExpo 2021 in Las Vegas will also remember the PC7000-11 shovel that was being teleremote operated live from the show, while the unit was over 600 km away at AZPG. This unit (above) is still positioned on site and the teleremote operation is continuing to be refined from inside the facility, with AutoSwing and AutoDump functions a few recent notable additions for improved operability.
Komatsu expects to replace this shovel with a backhoe version later this year, to also be teleremotely operated.
The first vehicle IM saw when driving up to AZPG was the EVX; its shiny yellow exterior providing the perfect contrast to the rich blue backdrop of the Tucson sky.
Since leaving Las Vegas in September 2021 and heading for Tucson, the company has made preparations to remove the small on-board battery which was displayed on the Komatsu stand and begin replacing it with a larger one from one of its integration partners.
The connectors for trolley were still on board and the team was awaiting final commissioning of the on-site trolley line ahead of further testing.
Singleton explained: “The EVX was a proof of concept to demonstrate that a large electric drive haul truck could be powered by a battery. Now that we better understand the ability of this technology to work in our EDT products, we must continue to advance the technology to drive increased performance and reduced operating costs.”
To date, Komatsu has continued with truck testing to learn how the various subsystems work with batteries while finalising its battery chemistry.
“We’ve also installed trolley infrastructure, which will allow us to conduct further testing on batteries and other alternative power sources,” Singleton said.
This infrastructure – made up of 39 poles that are ‘movable’ and ‘self-supporting’ – could support two 980E-5s running on the line at the same time.
Initially, it will support both the EVX and one 930E running in tandem.
The line itself is powered by a 9 MW substation, which Siemens and a local electrical and engineering company established.
The trolley course has been designed with a 60° corner to demonstrate to operators that this technology is for more than just straight hauls.
“This highlights the flexibility of the system and shows mining operators where the technology can already go today,” Cook said. “The concrete pillars, which can be moved with wheel loaders and other support equipment, are an indication that the trolley can ‘move with the mining’, too.”
Singleton said the next development for the EVX will focus on an increase in the battery capability and the investigation of proof of concept on a variety of static and dynamic charging options.
The trolley line will, no doubt, play a role in this testing, although it is not yet known if a single or hybrid power setup will be selected initially.
What is more certain, however, is the status of fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) testing on the EVX. Singleton said research into this area continues, yet a practical test where fuel cells and a battery were mounted on the chassis was some way off.
At this early stage, Singleton says the first commercial power-agnostic offering the company establishes will likely be diesel and/or diesel trolley.
He explained: “This approach delivers reduced risk to the overall portfolio by blending the power-agnostic chassis with a refined version of an existing technology (diesel engine + overhead dynamic trolley).”
“It also serves the secondary purpose of allowing battery technology the opportunity to mature from a performance perspective as we work to define overall truck fleet performance. Additionally, static and dynamic charging options (including development of an industry-standard connector) are within the scope of this product.”
And the first commercial power-agnostic truck will be in the 291 t (320 ton) class – the same size as a 930E – Singleton confirmed, adding that scalability was something being considered at every stage of the truck’s development.
“Scalability is the overall goal and is in alignment with the general power-agnostic approach to our design,” he said. “The major challenge will be the scalability of the energy storage componentry from a cost and performance standpoint. This is the primary driver behind the continued deliberate development cadence designed to give the battery technology time to mature over the intervening period before the design is finalised.”
When asked about fixed fast charging – a concept that has risen up the mine truck charging rankings of late with Charge On Innovation Challenge work from Hitachi Energy and a consortium led by Shell, respectively – Singleton referred to developments as a “two-way street” and a “work in progress”.
“Essentially those solutions need better definition and ‘mining proofing’ before we introduce them into AZPG,” he said. “Perhaps an opportunity exists to co-develop these technologies and improve speed to market but, again, this is still being defined.”
All this work sounds encouraging for those companies interested in adding to their ultra-size class truck fleets in the 2030s in line with industry-wide decarbonisation plans, but Komatsu customers looking to buy trucks today will be after future-proofed solutions.
Komatsu is all too aware of this and planning to provide a battery retrofit solution for its current -5 products, Singleton said.
GHG Alliance and beyond
As has been well documented, Komatsu has aligned with a core group of customers under its GHG Alliance to accelerate developments on the electric haulage front.
Rio Tinto, BHP, Codelco, Boliden, Teck, Antofagasta Minerals SA and Freeport-McMoRan are key stakeholders within the alliance and will be keen to see what testing emerges on that trolley line into 2023.
While Singleton said the communication process with these customers was still being refined, he acknowledged AZPG’s role in future developments.
“There is no question AZPG will provide a critical backdrop to accelerating our efforts and streamlining our ability to communicate and advance the development progress with our customers,” he said.
Whether the company chooses to initiate an early-learner program like the other big yellow equipment maker it competes with is yet to be seen, with Singleton saying its plans will leverage the “Komatsu approach” regardless of what the competition is doing.
What is clear is that AZPG will continue to keep Komatsu on the leading edge of mobile mining equipment technology developments.
As evidence, Cook reeled off several ongoing projects the company was engaged in, including an autonomous water truck in Australia, automated dozers in Brazil and plans to semi-automate electric blasthole drills.
Going forward, another consideration will be the ability to integrate AHS with trolley operations.
“Komatsu, as an organisation, is committed to solving our customer’s and the industry’s challenges, and we will continue to leverage AZPG and the wider Komatsu network to do this,” Cook said.