Mine Haul and Transport started on men's shoulders, soon helped by the animal power. The tire and diesel revolutions radically changed the way to address haul and transport challenges in the mining industry. Men’s workforce was asked to focus its energy on driving a large range of specialized vehicles.
The development of unmanned haul and transportation technologies appears then to be continuing the trend and one of the available cost-cutting strategies. Driving human resources cost down, improving global safety and increasing productivity are amongst the main objectives of the mining automation projects.
Several research centers and think tanks are focusing on imagining the future of mining. One of the most remarkable one remains the Swedish Rock Tech Center which released in 2011 its vision of the mining industry in 2030. Amongst the top 3 characteristics of the industry after 2030, RTC believes in "fully automated mining operations without human interface"
Unmanned Mine Haul And Transport: What Kind Of Vehicles Are Involved?
As far as haul an transport are concerned, and as we can see in this video about the Rio Tinto‘s Mine of the Future™ program, the R&D efforts are focusing on the development and introduction of driverless trucks and trains.
Beyond the transportation sector, other researches are conducted about a much larger range of equipment starting from drill rigs and up to loaders.
Though BHP-Billiton and several other big name of the industry currently conduct development program to contribute to the future of mining transportation, Rio Tinto’s program is acknowledged to be several step ahead, the reason why this article mainly focuses on the Mine of the Future™ program. Besides its cooperation with Caterpillar in North America, several BHP-Billiton top managers express their will to rather use proven technology developed by other companies rather that financing their own development. Rio’s standard has therefore even more chances to become the big mining industry’s standard in the years to come.
Unmanned Mine Haul And Transport: How Does It Work?
1. Driverless Trucks
Australian miner Rio Tinto is one of the pioneer companies to develop and then operate driverless trucks. A long term partnership with Tokyo-based Komatsu truck manufacturer gave birth to the Komatsu FrontRunner® concept.
As far as the Komatsu’s trucks are concerned, "artificial intelligence in the equipment learns the layout of the mine, how to recognize and avoid other vehicles and obstacles, and how to ferry loads rapidly and efficiently from loading face to dump with the least wear and tear, delay and use of fuel." The equipment integrates "a range of subsidiary technologies such as high precision GPS; advanced site wide networking solutions enabling machine control communication; real time safety monitoring of personnel and equipment using proximity detection; and remote expert human support and planning systems" (source: Rio Tinto)
The Komatsu trucks, comparable in size to the Caterpillar are close to seven meters high, 290-tonnes-capacity and driven by a 16- or 18-cylinder engine with 3,500 horsepower, are relatively similar to a manned truck. As a result, in case of failure from the robot truck computer systems, drivers can immediately use it in a regular manner (well, if drivers are available). This tends to mitigate the risk companies are taking in buying automated equipment.
2. Driverless Trains
First dreamt during the 19th century, by first sci-fi writers, driverless trains were first deployed in underground mining to transport the ore inside the mine and/or from the mine to the nearest port.
Rio Tinto invested USD$530 million to convert most of the present 41 trains, each 2,5 kilometers long, composed by 234 ore cars, each carrying 100 tons of ore, across its 1,500km iron-ore rail network in northwest Australia. The first driverless train is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014. The automated train program and inherent communication protocol are planned to be completed end of 2015. Conclusive trials have already been conducted in 2011 and 2012.
3. The Controlled Room
As it already happens with the driverless trucks, the driverless trains will be run from a control room located 1500km away in Perth, by people working similarly to air-traffic controllers.
Rio Tinto’s central Operations Centre (OC) "will manage all aspects of operational control for mining, rail transport, ship loading and associated critical infrastructure (e.g. power and water) for all Rio Tinto Iron Ore Pilbara operations", says the Rio Tinto website.