Test centre opens new doors for WA mine robotics, event hears

Richard Roberts

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CORE Innovation Hub panel (left to right): State of Play's Lisa Harwood, Rob Daw, Drew Larsen, Alex Bertram and Paul House
Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct can speed tech development

The new Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct north of Perth in Western Australia is a world-class piece of infrastructure that can help accelerate innovation and potentially home-grown production of mobile autonomy technologies, industry leaders have said.

The “largest open-access facility of its kind on the planet” – still very much at a formative stage of development – is already being used by mining leaders such as Imdex, Mineral Resources and RCT Global, part of Epiroc, and a host of smaller technology firms.

US mobile-autonomy tech company ASI Mining, in the middle of a US$100 million-plus automation project roll-out at the Roy Hill iron ore mine in WA, is opening an office at the industrial park abutting the A$28 million, 51-hectare automation and robotics precinct.

Speaking at an industry event in Perth hosted by CORE Innovation Hub, ASI Mining director of business development Drew Larsen said the company was excited to be expanding its footprint in “the hub of automation”, WA

“Any environment that promotes a collaborative framework and has an area where we can do some of that nitty-gritty validation, and have a place that customers can come to, is a plus,” he said.

ASI Mining president Diederik Lugtigheid, also in Perth in the past week, told InvestMETS.com the company would continue to use a 100-acre demonstration facility at its headquarters in northern Utah for product development and testing.

“But when you think about deploying projects, and new products and/or new connected systems, it’s not necessarily the best place to do that testing in Utah,” Lugtigheid said.

“It’s difficult to get customers there for face-to-face discussions.

“Bringing engineers from mining companies to see a change to a system, or what that does in a field environment, close to where our customers are, is really what the AARP brings to us.

“Roy Hill was also a great environment to do a lot of the release testing, site acceptance testing and those kinds of things. But as Roy Hill grows larger, and we’re now in a full deployment state, the appetite to do that in a production environment grows smaller. The AARP can play a role in that.

“And then being in an ecosystem and an environment with a host of other technology providers is an opportunity, again, to bring customers in and see how different pieces can potentially fit together. Being in the same environment can actually accelerate a lot of that [interaction] and build trust between the parties.”

Imdex CEO Paul House, speaking at the CORE event, said demonstrating new technology in a live mining environment was generally not possible: “That’s like changing all four tyres on the car when you’re doing 110 down the freeway.

“To find ways to collaborate, to trial, to share risk and to give the generation of new technologies, and the adoption of new technologies, a chance … is absolutely vital.”

Rob Dawe, until recently the chief information officer at Hexagon Mining, part of Stockholm-listed Hexagon AB, said the company was working with WA iron ore and lithium producer MinRes on roadtrain truck automation in the state’s Pilbara region, after a multi-year testing and development phase, under its largest ever mining-tech contract. Before joining Hexagon he founded a local mining-tech company, MiPlan, which he sold to the Swedish group in 2017.

“[For] many people in the start-up scene the very first question they get is, where else has it [their product] been installed? And you say, as a start-up, we haven’t got anything installed – help us out.

“So having a facility like this is going to unlock so much opportunity for, not just the start-up scene, but also for the actual mining industry itself.

“We have a facility that’s going to be able to do that final-mile testing before we get to site.

“I think that’s going to help us accelerate some of this innovation and also help de-risk some of the innovation investments from the industry as well because they now have a place where they can go and see it.”

Alex Bertram, who spent more than a decade at BHP and was a manager on several of its major WA digital and automation programs, said major mine haul truck automation deployments in WA over the past decade followed years of technology development and a huge leap of faith on the part of mine owners and their suppliers.

“Pre-2013, when the first trucks were just starting to run around at Jimblebar and West Angelas, [we had] 500t of material – half a kilotonne of material – running around without a driver behind it,” said Bertram, who has been working as AARP’s industry and innovation lead.

“It takes a huge amount of effort and trust to allow that to be normal on a mine site.

“I think in WA and Queensland and now in other parts of the world we’ve started to see that trust build for autonomous systems.

“That then allows [suppliers] that are maybe a little bit more nimble and agile, more open to collaborating across multiple vendors and systems, to then move quickly and provide solutions that can disrupt the market.

“The incumbent players in the hard-tech space … have their own proving ground facilities. This [AARP] isn’t the first open-air proving ground on the planet. The likes of Komatsu and Caterpillar and others have facilities that they’ve invested significant money, time and effort into, to prove and de-risk technologies.

“They’ve learnt the hard way that you don’t want to learn at a customer site things you can learn in your own backyard.

“The challenge is those facilities are expensive and difficult to get going, and they’re closed facilities. They’re not open to anyone to be able to leverage.

“That’s where I think the precinct does have a point of difference. It is probably the largest open-air, open-access facility of its kind on the planet.

“NORCAT has a similar [open-access] facility focused on underground mining in Canada and the acceleration in underground technology development that’s come out of that facility is significant.”

Bertram said operating and safety milestones of the world’s largest offroad autonomous mine-truck haulage fleet had put WA on the map as a global mobile autonomy hotspot.

“The hope is that if we start to see more of that technology being developed and designed here in the state, and in the country, that we’ll start to be able to manufacture some of that equipment as well,” he said.


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