An industry veteran and his young son just starting his mining engineering career got a surprise when they visited the Auto-mate stand in the people and noise filled exhibitor hall at the recent Diggers & Dealers forum at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.
When they asked about vehicle automation technology on display they were told it could take only minutes for them to learn how to plan autonomous haulage runs on a simulator Perth-based Auto-mate had as its stand centrepiece.
“They didn’t believe it, of course,” says Auto-mate’s solutions and implementation manager, Damien Williams.
“But we took five minutes and [the] son was programming missions on this platform and it was running it.
“Yes, we were using a simulated environment, but the autonomous truck [running in the program] had all the smarts on it and that doesn’t change if the truck is at a mine in WA or somewhere else in the world. That’s all you need and that’s as simple as the mission planning needs to be.
“You don’t need to spend three weeks at a training simulator course in Perth to be qualified as a control room operator.”
Williams says the simulator, mission planning and Auto-mate’s unique route path planning (RPP) and other level four mine-vehicle automation technology surprised more than one visitor at Kalgoorlie. The managing director of a junior miner, who’d worked previously with a major iron ore company, said: “Is this really automation?
“His experience had been with an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] level three platform, so he associated fleet automation with huge capital investment and he hadn’t expected to see [Autonomy 2.0] in the life time of his company’s orebody,” Williams says.
“When we were finished talking he said, wow, this could actually work for my mine.
“I think this surprise at the automation options currently available that we saw at Diggers is due to the common perception that automation is a cost-saving strategy for the larger volume mining houses. Look at the entire autonomous haulage fleet population currently operating in the field, they are all coming from OEMs. But the next generation, automation 2.0, is coming from OTMs – original technology manufacturers – and we are seeing that OEM-to-OTM transition in the market.”
Williams says OTMs bring something new to the 2.0 table, other than more affordable and flexible technology.
“The advantage of an OTM comes down to the structure needed for core business,” he says.
“They are established to deliver solutions and then continually evolve them over time in response to end-user feedback.
“Their support and commercial models are built around that principle, with their expertise skewed toward expanding and improving on their core technology.”
Williams, who has worked for a mining OEM, says the modus operandi of such companies revolves around standard waterfall-based development with a platform being released and then supported for a certain time period – typically a number of years.
“Beyond the control of their own assets, their expertise is not aligned to automation capabilities or end-user needs,” Williams says.
“If your core deliverable to a market is based around building chassis, the resources you dedicate to positional expertise or mission optimisation algorithms will always be comparatively poor.”
Williams says autonomy 1.0 optics have worked in favour of incumbent suppliers, but not necessarily the industry at large.
“Given the capital intensity and ongoing operational and support requirements of the automation solutions out there, smaller volume miners discard autonomy as a possibility and therefore neglect it as a pathway for the societal and safety benefits we know it can drive,” he says.
“As we’re now seeing and hearing about, automation is a good enabler for electrification, remote work, physical safety and of course mine operational and financial sustainability.
“It’s why we are so driven to bring a more flexible and cost-effective option to the table for the industry.
“I’m hoping as the market starts understanding our level four offering and the lower burden of entry it provides … automation can take its place among the other tools miners have to address a raft of operational, safety, environmental and governance issues.”
Auto-mate CEO Daniel Poller, who journeyed to Kalgoorlie for the forum that is largely focused on smaller miners pushing to finance and develop generally smaller projects, says the supplier is talking to a diverse range of potential users of its technology.
“We had a conversation recently with a player in Europe, who was talking about the need for decarbonisation and going to smaller vehicles. They want to automate, in any case, their particular site. So we’ve been talking about automation, but definitely the need for smaller vehicles is where automation can really come in.
“And here in Australia we’ve done some work with one of the larger contractors looking to introduce automation at a junior miner’s site in WA where they are targeting production in 2025.
“The audience here at Diggers is generally much more about the asset as opposed to the tech. They are focused on their orebody, their grade, their commercial calculations. They don’t necessarily put automation into those calculations, but that’s partly because it hasn’t really been an option for many of them until now.
“But they’re the ones who generally have more difficulty hiring and retaining labour, oftentimes a higher cost of capital … everything for them tends to be more complicated. So automation is going to benefit them even more.
“But they need education about the technology that’s available because they don’t have the time and people to go out there and assess every new technology that’s out there themselves, and doing all the work that a major is going to do.
“That’s on us. We’re the ones that have to go out there and educate the miners on what’s out there, what’s changing in technology and then showing them how we can enable their operations.”
Poller says as with the Autonomy 1.0 era that has been such a big feature of the technology transition in parts of the mining industry over the past 15 years, many key Autonomy 2.0 developments are occurring in WA where mining is such a dominant part of an export-dependent economy.
“I think we’re still extremely early in that journey, but when the technology starts to really impact it is going to gain traction much faster than we saw with the level three automation deployed by the majors and the OEMs,” he says.
“People need to acknowledge there will be speed bumps with all of these technology deployments. We can’t let the occasional hiccups stop the progress.
“We believe in collaboration, where possible, because our bigger competitors are the OEMs. They’re really the competition [for OTMs] today. The rest of us will compete for funding, and for people and resources, but we all need to succeed because every time one of us succeeds, it gives a boost for the other.
“And the market is, potentially, going to be too big for any one of us to service adequately, at least in the near future.
“But any time one of us fails, it will be hard for the rest of us to go forward.”
*Have questions about Autonomy 2.0? Then tune into Auto-mate’s exclusive upcoming webinar series by registering here.