In most industries, innovative goals for the future seem far away and unattainable. However, the future is already here in the mining industry with autonomous vehicles. While autonomous cars are just beginning to hit the roads in the US, self-driving technology has already been successfully implemented in large-scale mining operations.

Evolution of Autonomous Mining

Autonomous Mining Truck
Photo Credit: Komatsu

Autonomy in mining first began in 1990 in Japan with Komatsu Mining, using the Field Management Software for mines as a foundation. Commercial deployment for Komatsu mining was deployed in Chile in 2007 and in Australia in 2008. These deployments were successful enough that developments continued to be made, and more companies began to join the autonomous mining industry. For example, Caterpillar launched commercially in 2013.

Today, there are three levels of autonomy to choose from, depending on the needs of the mining site. The first is remote control operation in which the machine is run by an operator who can be in a completely different state while operating the vehicle. This is beneficial for things like an excavator so that the operator can be kept out of harsh environments.

The next level is semi-autonomous operation. This is ideal for inexperienced operators to become efficient more quickly, where the truck can help the operator avoid digging too deep, hitting overhead objects, or swinging into hazardous areas.

Lastly, there is full autonomy. Several drills, dozers, and more are already equipped with this advanced technology which allows the trucks to work completely unmanned 24/7—no matter the weather or time. 

The success of the autonomous equipment is clear: as of May 2021, two major autonomous truck companies, Caterpillar and Komatsu, have each surpassed 3 billion tonnes of material hauled autonomously.

Caterpillar Autonomous Mining Truck
Photo Credit: Caterpillar

How It Works

Autonomous vehicles rely on GPS and sensors like radar and LiDAR to send information to a computer unit and to perceive the world around them. The onboard computers connect to the various input systems which are programmed with algorithms and scheduling designed to meet the loading goal of each day. This allows the routes the trucks take to be exact; the trucks can repeatedly run the same paths. 

The trucks’ sensors and GPS allow them to cope with challenging environmental conditions of the mine site. There are also six cameras on board that work together with the sensors to monitor the surroundings and stay on course, allowing the trucks to perceive the environment far enough ahead that they can stop if there is an issue.

Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles

The most significant benefit of autonomous vehicles in mining is safety. More people are killed or injured in the mining industry than in any other industry with over 15,000 deaths per year. The materials used in mining also cause numerous health issues and respiratory complications from the workers breathing in toxic chemicals. Autonomous mining trucks move more people out of harm’s way in precarious conditions and eliminate the chances of human error due to inexperience or fatigue. In their over seven years of operation, Caterpillar has reported zero lost-time injuries.

Another benefit is productivity and reduced costs. These trucks work 24/7, meaning that the mining operations run beyond normal operating hours throughout the night. By automating certain tasks, workers can focus on more complex tasks or move to areas where they are needed more. Construction and mining technology investor Foundamental reports an average increase in mine productivity of 30% with autonomous vehicles. This is primarily due to their longer production hours, reduced load and unit cost, and improved tire life since the optimized controls reduce sudden acceleration and abrupt steering. 

Furthermore, similar to other industries, mining has faced a lack of skilled laborers and increased operating costs. Mining companies are looking for every opportunity to stay competitive in today’s economy. They consider autonomous systems as cheaper, safer, and more reliable options to run their business. The success of the mining industry’s use of autonomous vehicles indicates the impact autonomous vehicles can and will have on other industries

Watch autonomous trucks in action on Tomorrow’s World Today’s “Empty Driver’s Seat” premiering on August 14 at 8:30 am EST on the Science Channel and August 15 at 6:30 am on the Discovery Channel.

Explore the World of Innovation, and discover the science behind roller coasters, the evolution of energy, and what you need to know about electronic recycling.