So, you’re looking to make the transition to autonomy on your quarry or mining site. Perhaps you’re exploring a more sustainable alternative to your current solution, or perhaps you’re investigating ways to future-proof your operations and make them safer and more efficient.
In this article, I want to discuss the benefits of autonomy in the quarrying and mining industry, as well as outline the practical considerations a quarrying or mining site must undertake to prepare to transition to an autonomous future.
For almost a century, the quarrying and mining industry has remained largely unchanged: material is blasted and drilled, taken to a crusher, then transported onwards to various destinations. Sites have been run with larger diesel vehicles with operations dictated by working hours. And human error has always been part of the equation in this traditionally hazardous industry. To say it’s a sector ripe for change is an understatement – from a safety, sustainability, and efficiency point of view.
The question you may be asking is: what does autonomy have to do with sustainability? Well, autonomy enables us to downsize and replace one or two huge diesel-powered machines (or “elephants”) with a fleet of around 10 fully electric TA15s (or “ants”) without increasing operator costs. So, preparing a quarrying or mining site for autonomy also means preparing it for electrification. A win-win if you’re keen to boost efficiency, while also reducing environmental impact.
With its smaller size and payload capacity, the fully electric TA15 is a great fit for the quarrying and mining industry. Downsized vehicles enable opportunity charging, smaller batteries, and the ability to charge in frequent cycles. This averages out the power consumption over the full day, with one machine charging while others are working. Machines take just 90 seconds to 2 minutes to charge and we’re able to explore the possibilities of charging while waiting for loading and unloading – this all helps maximize efficiency and reduce downtime.
Smaller vehicles also mean narrower haul roads, less maintenance, and the possibility to use more of the mine for extraction rather than roads. Another benefit of downsizing is that we’re able to right size equipment, scaling up or down depending on production needs.
So, from a practical point of view, what does preparing a quarrying or mining site for autonomy involve?
A key consideration for any quarrying or mining site is finding a power source. Previously, a huge tanker would come and refill diesel tanks, but with an electric solution like the TA15, we need to connect to the grid to ensure enough electricity is delivered to charging stations. This means installing cabling throughout the site. Further considerations include charging stations, machine parking, a control room to monitor production and performance data, and surveillance in the form of security camera
At this stage, we also consider the dimensions of the site, the process flow (where machines will be recharged and operate) as well as deciding the autonomous operating zones (AOZ). Creating the AOZ involves physical safety measures, like installing fences, gates and e-stop systems, as well as traffic management measures to separate people from these areas. For this part of the process, we at Volvo Autonomous Solutions assume a more consultative role, advising our customers on the best ways to make this change within their operational workflow. Customers also need to establish specific loading and unloading areas for autonomous vehicles.
The TA15 can be loaded with many different loading concepts, like wheel loaders, excavators, silos and conveyors, etc. The loading can be done by manned machines inside the AOZ, while the autonomous system handles multiple simultaneous loading spots and dispatches machines according to a number of different rules.
For machines to work autonomously, we must establish a consistent, secure, and powerful communication network, either 4G or 5G, so autonomous vehicles can function without latency. This is naturally one of the most important considerations for continuous autonomous operations. Having good GPS coverage is also preferred.
Individuals working on quarrying and mining sites must undergo new safety training for this new way of working. A change of process means a new mindset and procedural considerations. For a nearly 100-year-old industry, physical and technical considerations are one thing, but without a desire and willingness for change, switching to a new transport solution is impossible. That’s why I always stress that preparing a site for autonomy is first and foremost a question of change management. So, it’s vitally important to ensure all members of your organization are on board, flexible, and understand the benefits an autonomous transport solution can provide.
The question on everyone’s lips when it comes to transitioning to autonomy is cost. Put simply, we believe our autonomous and electrified solution can be on par with the current cost of operations on a traditional site today. But when we dig a little deeper, the additional benefits that autonomy affords could prove more cost-effective in the long run (due to increased uptime and productivity) and help future-proof an organization. Indeed, when it comes to efficiency, safety, and sustainability, autonomy is the clear winner.
But the potential benefits don’t end there. Autonomous transport is also a great opportunity for mining and quarrying companies to explore new business models like transport as a service, which can provide greater flexibility and customization. Whether it’s the choice of technology, or the implementation of a specific solution, when it comes to autonomy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, there are plenty of opportunities to co-create value with our customers in the development process and define a solution that delivers both commercial value and innovation.
At Volvo Autonomous Solutions, we are proud to have spearheaded such partnerships with companies like Holcim and Brönnöy Kalk and believe more is to come as the industry looks for a better, safer, and more sustainable future.