The automation revolution

Louise Davis

Could a new scalable solution kickstart a dramatic modernisation of mining processes?

The workforce in the mining industry is declining. Remote, hazardous environments and competition from other sectors are making it more difficult to attract new people to the sector. The Mining Association of Canada estimates that 10,000 new workers are required annually for the next decade to fill new positions and replace current ones. Likewise, the Australian Minerals Council predicts a shortfall of 86,000 workers. This is causing big challenges for mining operations across the world.

One solution to a declining workforce is to automate the processes through fully autonomous mining equipment. It significantly improves efficiency and productivity by enabling vehicles to operate for longer, or by enabling an operator to control multiple vehicles. It provides a considerable reduction in fuel consumption and emissions, which has running cost and environmental benefits. But arguably its biggest benefit is a step-change improvement in safety. However, one of the biggest barriers to adoption is the sizeable investment required in replacing existing high-value fleets with new autonomous versions.

Leading vehicle automation provider, ABD Solutions, has developed a solution to the problem. Its newly launched Indigo Drive is a software eco-system that enables any existing mining vehicle to be quickly and cost-effectively automated.

How can existing mining vehicles be automated?

Matthew Price, managing director of ABD Solutions, explains how this technology can combat the workforce challenge: “Operators are not only looking for a long-term solution as the industry moves towards autonomy, they also need to plug the immediate workforce gaps now. The flexibility of Indigo Drive allows it to be easily scaled to achieve autonomy quickly and simply to areas of the operation that need it most, reducing downtime and delays caused by staff shortages.

“Indigo Drive can be installed into any vehicle already in use, negating the need to invest in new machinery. The benefit of this approach is substantial, not only do driverless vehicles improve safety, they also enable site operations to become more streamlined and efficient. It goes a long way to supporting ESG imperatives, as pressure for this continues to build in the mining industry.”

Smart software eco-system

So how does the technology work? It provides all the elements required to create driverless fleets through a single software eco-system. These elements include the technology required to control the vehicle, such as drive-by-wire and driving robots; the vehicle perception and obstacle detection system (LiDAR, camera, radar); a user-friendly software interface for route-planning and vehicle management; a communication system (Radio, V2X, GPS/GNSS) and vehicle health and diagnostics monitoring (OBD2, telemetry, sensors).

The hardware ABD Solutions uses to provide automation requires only minor modifications to the vehicle and is semi-permanent, allowing it to be moved from one vehicle to another should requirements change, or if the vehicle needs maintenance. The equipment is non-intrusive, allowing the vehicle to be used autonomously or manually driven whilst the equipment is fitted, considerably increasing the vehicle’s operational flexibility.

Indigo Drive enables the entire fleet to be synchronised and managed on one platform to maximise productivity and efficiency. Its task planning software ensures that vehicles take the most efficient routes, reducing fuel consumption and time to complete operations. Vehicles that detect obstructions can communicate them to the fleet management system to prevent others from encountering the same issue. Once the obstruction has been flagged the vehicle management system can generate an alternative route or an operator can remote into the vehicle to immediately assess the situation.

A critical indirect benefit of the system is the digitisation of information from the vehicle. It creates new data streams that are invaluable to fleet operators. The vehicle’s speed, location, fuel level, diagnostic status, distance to target etc can all be relayed via the vehicle management toolset. Data analytics can automatically process this information to assist with operational decisions, fleet maintenance scheduling and logistics planning.

A positive reception to Indigo Drive

The technology has already sparked the interest of major mining operations around the world. As well as a partnership with Kyokuto Boeki Kaisha (KBK), one of Japan’s leading engineering consultancies, ABD Solutions also recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Jevons Robotics to integrate Indigo Drive into a suite of automation-enabled industrial electric vehicles. These vehicles will be operated automatically and supervised from a central control room improving safety and streamlining the mining process, both operationally and financially. It has also announced a similar agreement with Amaroq Minerals, to investigate the potential for the introduction of vehicle autonomy systems for various mining vehicles at the Nalunaq site in Greenland.

“The Nalunaq site is particularly remote and unpredictable, even for the mining industry. It can be difficult to persuade people to come and work in these types of environments,” says Price. “Our work with Amaroq Minerals is a great example of how automation, through our technology, can help to provide an immediate solution to one of the biggest concerns facing the mining industry at the moment.”

For many operators, the step towards a new, fully autonomous mining fleet always seemed a stretch too far. Often, in established industries such as mining, these big leaps need a catalyst for change. Indigo Drive’s ability to cost-effectively automate existing fleets, combined with the declining workforce challenge that is set to worsen could be what kick-starts the mining automation revolution.

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