Auto, electric and AI could be mining’s golden troika

Richard Roberts

Editor in chief

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Rio Tinto's John Mulcahy (centre) speaks at the 2023 Energy and Mines Australia Summit
‘You will need automation … so get that working, then bring in electrification’

Automation plus electrification plus AI is a winning formula for miners who can afford it, the Energy and Mines Australia Summit heard.

“We think you could electrify a mine without automation, but it would be really difficult to optimise your energy use,” Rio Tinto’s principal advisor surface mining technology, John Mulcahy said at the event. Mulcahy has been with the major miner for more than a decade, during which it has expanded one of the world’s largest autonomous mine truck fleets, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, to more than 130 vehicles.

“So if your strategy is about maximising your production for the lowest energy input then you’re probably going to need automation as part of the solution.

“Our experience has shown us that autonomous haulage is a big challenge.

“We know electrification is an even bigger change.

“We’re in the fortunate position – well, maybe well-planned position, giving my company some credit – that we have a large degree of our fleet already autonomous and a railway that’s autonomous. So we don’t have to deal with those two at once.

“If you look at the path electrification is taking, it is a couple of years out. My counsel would be, don’t do both at once. But you will need automation so I’d suggest that you start thinking about that now so you can get that working, then bring in the electrification.”

The conference heard long-standing interoperability barriers would need to be dismantled if the industry was going to be in a position to manage energy, mobile and fixed assets, people and mineral resources more effectively.

“It’s not just about electrification and decarbonisation, it’s going to be a confluence of a whole bunch of technologies, and in particular, robotics and automation, AI and data, which will actually be part of the solution as well,” said State of Play CEO Graeme Stanway.

“There will be a confluence of that with the mine energy system.

“We’re going to see is a big change in operation of mines and the way that mines are designed.”

Mulcahy said current diesel trucks could be deployed “anywhere in the mine, any time” independent of a mine’s power system.

“When we transition to a battery-electric mine we will create this interdependency between our power system and our haulage systems,” he said.

“That basically means that we’re going to have to our systems talk to each other.

“Our chargers are going to have to be able to talk to our power network. Our autonomous haulage system is going to have to be able to understand what’s happening with a battery on your truck, and guide it onto an innovative trolley or send it to a charger.

“Our fleet management system is going to have to be aware of the upcoming haulage requirements and the energy demands.

“And all that’s going to have to talk to a grid and power system with an increased penetration of renewables with variations in supply.

“So, constantly, in real time, we’re going to have to have those systems talking to each other, sharing data, sharing commands and working seamlessly.”

First Mode CEO Julian Soles said the Anglo American-backed hydrogen-battery mine truck developer had made seamless fleet and energy management a core part of its roadmap, which aims to have a commercial non-diesel ultra-class vehicle in operation within two years.

“It’s quite a shift in how you manage the fleet going from diesel to electric,” he said.

“What’s intuitive before is not going to be intuitive tomorrow.

“Fleet and infrastructure integration is really important. It’s about managing every electron because [each one] is really, really precious.

“Haulage is about moving tonnes; that’s the objective. If you’ve got to drive halfway across the mine to refuel and you’re [truck is] empty, you’re basically wasting a lot of energy. You’ve got to make sure that you minimise your vehicle movement when it’s empty.

“That’s really the premise for how we’re doing our refuelling system … and our energy management platform.

“We want the platform to be open. It’s customers’ data, they should have access to it; they should be able to see all the insights. We think that’s really important.

“It will be able to interface an autonomy kit [and any] fleet management system around … and be able to provide intelligent recommendations. Being able to advise and help dispatch as much as possible is what we need to be doing.”

Michelle Ash, BHP vice president of growth, indicated the business case for integrated electrification and automation was increasingly being assessed “because they go hand-in-hand quite nicely”.

She said better energy management would be fundamental to looming shifts in mine planning and operations.

“One of the reasons why we use so much energy in the first place is that we move a lot of waste around,” she said.

“We do need to start thinking about reducing the amount of waste that we need to move [and] the distance we need to move it … Rethink the way we go about mining.

“Setting up a trucking fleet and running trucks around isn’t necessarily going to be the solution going forward. It’s going to be more complex than that. We’re going to have trucks, we’ll have conveyance systems, we’ll have alternative energy storage systems, we’ll have more precise mining and ore sorting.

“The great thing about where we are at the moment is that there’s a lot of great technology that we can use that’s pretty much off the shelf … with some adaptations, that can help us manage that, whether it be with the computing power available now, some of the AI and communication technologies that we’ve got.

“We can really harness some of that to manage this additional complexity that we’re going to have as we go forward.”


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