Milestones have been coming thick and fast for the world’s fastest growing mine fleet e-mobility and automation company, EACON Mining Technology. However, even bigger markers loom.
If the company’s work with CHN Energy to rapidly scale the world’s largest robotic, hybrid-electric haul fleet at the South Pit mine in north-west China hasn’t been impressive enough, the next steps at the site should get the industry’s full attention.
EACON recently announced its autonomous vehicle fleet at South Pit had gone past 200 units – more than 40% of the trucks at the 40 million tonnes per annum mine – with the progressive transition to a full EACON hybrid-electric truck fleet also deleting nearly 16,000 tonnes a year of carbon-equivalent scope one emissions.
“South Pit Coal Mine has a goal to achieve 100% autonomy by the end of 2024,” says EACON China’s Head of Business Development, Hao Yang.
EACON’s Chief Operating Officer, Dr Elaine Jin, who bides her time between EACON’s headquarters in Beijing and a regional base in Perth, Western Australia, says the mine is phasing out diesel trucks with the supplier’s help.
“Going forward, we will discontinue the deployment of diesel trucks,” she says.
“We have already begun the phased elimination of some diesel trucks, particularly those with a smaller payload of 45t.”
The dual transition makes EACON a front-runner in an international mine-autonomy market said to be worth at least US$3 billion this year and forecast to grow to $10 billion by 2030.
This year industry concerns have been raised at mining conferences in Australia and North America about capacity in the mining-tech supply chain to meet surging demand for mobile autonomy and electrification.
“We have demonstrated the robustness of our innovative technology at several sites,” says Jin.
“Our sales pipeline continues to grow strongly.”
To give a sense of the scale of the autonomous e-mobility build-up at South Pit since EACON arrived on site in November 2020, it advanced from the removal of its truck safety driver in 2022 to a fleet of 39 autonomous vehicles by the end of that year. This year the goal was to grow that to 200 trucks and that box has now been ticked.
The trucks, typically 70t-to-90t payload hauling on 11km circuits over about 40 minutes, including loading and dumping, reach a top speed of 35km per hour, which is the limit set by the mine for human drivers.
In October this year the expanded autonomous haul truck (AHT) fleet was moving more than three million cubic metres of material a month and has now transported circa-22.5 million cubic metres.
AHT and manned vehicles operate side-by-side in AHT work zones governed by EACON’s intelligent dispatch platform, unique vehicle technology stack and the mine’s robust LTE/5G network and safety protocols. EACON’s vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and intelligent onboard perception and control systems are integrated with an equipment-agnostic management system.
“Operating such a large-scale fleet of autonomous vehicles presents numerous challenges for conventional solutions, including multi-vehicle coordination in high-traffic density scenarios and dependence on network bandwidth,” says Dr WenLiang Fu, EACON’s Head of System Design.
“EACON’s next-generation autonomous driving solution addresses this issue through innovative technology and systematic design.”
To better integrate the autonomous driving system with new energy trucks, EACON first redesigned and then patented the truck’s drive-by-wire system and new energy systems to make its electrical architecture more consistent with the way autonomous driving works. For communication between the autonomous driving system and chassis domain, EACON developed a platform-based interface and uses standard communication protocols.
“With this method of decoupling the autonomous driving system and the chassis domain, we can quickly deploy autonomous driving software on different models,” says Dr Huiyong Chen, vice president of R&D.
“The entire autonomous driving system of EACON is different from the traditional centralised architecture, which relies on the control platform for unified decision-making and management.
“EACON adopts a more advanced distributed architecture, placing more decision-making and safety on the truck, which make the system more adaptive to different working scenarios, and safer.”
Manned vehicles install location and communication devices before they enter the AHT working zone so that vehicles can share locations with each other through the LTE/5G network and V2V technology.
Smart control equals smart mining
In EACON’s system the control centre server is dedicated solely to dispatching and map management, with each vehicle’s advanced perception system enabling autonomous intelligent decision-making and precise path planning.
According to Jin, this not only significantly reduces network reliance but also enhances adaptability to various scenarios.
Controllers have real-time 3D visualisation and interactive 3D maps they can use to track the status of mobile equipment, berms, roads, and loading and dumping areas. The EACON system also provides real-time statistical data and onboard video monitoring views. Its perception system uses multi-sensor fusion to comprehensively detect the surround environment.
EACON’s FMS maps are generated automatically and can be dynamically updated based on truck sensor data. The EACON FMS also produces insightful short and longer-term reports, based on multiple data sources.
“The traditional autonomous driving systems with centralised architecture rely heavily on the control platform,” Jin says.
“With EACON’s distributed architecture the truck becomes an intelligent device”
“The platform controller doesn’t need to be deeply involved in drive-path planning, decision making and coordinating the traffic sequence.
“With EACON’s distributed architecture the truck becomes an intelligent device.
“It is capable of handling multiple driving-related tasks independently.
“They include perception, path planning, decision-making on tasks such as parking, detouring and slowing, and multi-truck coordination at intersections.
“These tasks are executed by the trucks through onboard high-performance edge computing and V2V communication technology. In the event that information needs to be reported to the platform, we only upload key information and processed results.
“EACON’s solution relies more on the computing resources of the onboard high-performance computers.
“Only necessary data such as truck status and failure alert are transmitted to the platform.
“To further minimise network dependence, when updating the map only differential data packets are transmitted to the trucks.”
Changing the game
EACON, established in 2018, has rapidly emerged as the largest OEM-agnostic AHS provider in the still nascent mining market.
“We have successfully implemented our solutions on different truck models from three OEMs already, operating safely and efficiently,” Jin says.
“The autonomous trucks are typically operating for over 21 hours a day, which is two hours more than the average length of traditional manned driving operation.
“The trucks are working at 100% of the manned-equipment productivity level. We believe we could achieve 105-115% productivity as the efficiency rates continue to improve.”
Those deployments, at large-scale coal mines and China National Building Material Group’s Fushan quarry in Shandong, have given EACON an unequalled platform for growth.
“In China, we collaborate with different OEMs,” Jin says.
“EACON provides the drive-by-wire and autonomous driving solutions and new energy system design, while the OEMs are responsible for the assembly.
“The autonomous driving system layer can be adapted to different truck models from various OEMs.
“In Australia we will also provide retrofit solutions for truck models such as Caterpillar, Komatsu, Hitachi and others.
“As well as the size and growth of the commercial EACON fleet, we see the ability to offer both battery-electric and hybrid-electric autonomous new energy mining trucks as a game-changer for the industry, particularly when combined with a state-of-the-art OEM-agnostic mobile asset management system.”