The future is here. On mines in some of the most remote places on earth, trucks hauling upwards of 400 tons (about the weight of 200 cars) roam from pit to crusher with no humans in sight. These trucks are part of Caterpillar’s Cat Command for Hauling system, or without the marketing terms, autonomous trucking.
I was fortunate enough to attend a demonstration and learning event for the new autonomous technology at the Tinaja Hills facility in Arizona. We learned about the technology in the morning and saw the trucks operating humanless first-hand at an afternoon demonstration. It’s spectacular.
Autonomy is a terribly misunderstood and a largely hated topic within the mining and construction industries. Operators view the technology as a threat to their life’s work. Understandable, but after reviewing the facts, it’s easy to understand that it’s not.
Autonomy is best suited for remote areas like the Pilbara region of Australia where operators are hard to come by, due to a regular commute by aircraft to the middle of nowhere, known as “fly in fly out” or FIFO. It’s a hard sell to the younger generation, and with retirements accelerating, mine operators are struggling to fill seats. This is why Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), whose mine manager presented to us in person, ordered an autonomous fleet provided by Caterpillar. Their existing 793 trucks were retrofitted to accommodate autonomous technology. FMG also currently maintains 60 autonomous trucks with that number expanding to over 100 by 2019.
The program was slowly phased in, and mine operators were extremely upfront with current operators who were scheduled to eventually be displaced. They offered every operator the chance to retrain and work other roles at the company. Many took the opportunity, and a few left — a natural progression with any technological advancement.
After months spent dialing in the fleet, the results are incredible. Because the trucks only stop for fuel, and work around the clock seven days a week, production is up by over 30% with much more still on the table. The trucks adjust their routes, back themselves up to the shovels perfectly every time, burn less fuel, and experience less wear and tear compared to human-operated trucks.
Safety is an obvious concern with no humans at the wheel. Every truck has an array of sensors on the front and back to detect objects and stop within a single truck length at full speed if necessary. Beyond the sensors, every human and every light vehicle on site is fitted with a beacon to tell trucks exactly where they’re at. If the truck approaches a light vehicle in the middle of the haul road, it stops and proceeds again once the vehicle is clear. No accidents have occured.
With mines operating more efficiently, they’re able to mine ore that was previously too low-grade to be economical. They can also continue operating without layoffs at lower commodity prices. The new systems require a whole new group of talented people to refine and maintain the technology, which isn’t much solace for some operators, but it’s definitely another benefit. Creative destruction at work.
While autonomy is not a one size fits all technology for every mine in the world, it’s certainly set to become more prevalent over the next decade and beyond. Autonomy is another tool at our disposal in the chase to keep the world supplied with the metals society needs. Considering that it’s both safer and more efficient, it’s obvious why autonomous is the future.