Canadian Mining Journal


Bringing autonomous haulage to the oil sands

Komatsu and SMS Equipment started working on applying autonomous haulage systems in the oilsands in 2013. CREDIT: SMS EQUIPMENT

Several oilsands producers have started looking at the application of autonomous haulage systems and the use of driverless haul trucks to optimize transportation of oilsands from the mine to the processing facilities. This is a significant undertaking in the industry as it would be the first use of commercial autonomous haulage fleets in North America. The learning curve would be steep, but the benefits significant.

In 2013, Komatsu started the oilsands autonomous haulage system (AHS) journey with its Canadian dealer, SMS Equipment. At the time, the only AHS operations were in hard rock mines in Chile and Australia, so the system had to be adapted for the Canadian oilsands environment. Favourable results led to a six-truck commercial-scale AHS evaluation in a production environment from early 2016 to mid-2017 that verified the parameters needed for full production level deployment of AHS in the oilsands.

Scott Schellenberg, senior manager autonomous haulage systems at SMS Equipment, says many learnings were taken from the trials in order to make AHS a viable solution in the oilsands.

He explains a major one, “A strength of the system is its accuracy and repeatability — the trucks drive exactly where they are supposed to, every time. But that proves to be an issue in the soft conditions of the oilsands when the trucks drive in the same spot every time — it ruts out the roads. So, with Komatsu, we developed multi-trajectory functionality which allows the trucks to travel different paths, or trajectories, within their lanes.”

The critical support role

The test project underlines the importance of OEM team synergy and support.

Komatsu owns the autonomous truck technology and the software solution to safely manage a complex fleet of vehicles. SMS Equipment provides the critical service, support and implementation pieces. This synergistic model is critical, ensuring that the best AHS technology can be properly deployed and sustained in a remote environment.

“AHS is much more than deploying the latest technologies,” Schellenberg says. “The Komatsu FrontRunner AHS is a mining material movement solution which requires our customers to challenge their current processes and procedures.”

Computer-controlled vehicles introduce a revolutionary level of control sophistication that is unmatched in the industry. It calls for constant communication with mine operations teams as the FrontRunner autonomous software soluvehition and the fleet management system have the potential to take the place of equipment operators. Having the proper processes and procedures in place is just as important as the technology itself.

“SMS Equipment understands that for our customers to be successful, we need to be more than just a supplier of technology,”

Schellenberg says. “We need to support our customers in all aspects of the change management journey. It is a complete rethink from delivering equipment to managing a business transformation.”

Having highly skilled technicians and engineering resources is just one part of the SMS Equipment technology support model. SMS Equipment also provides industry experts to assist its developing AHS implementation such as policy, procedure, and safe work practice development.

Relationship development

Training on the new systems is critical. SMS Equipment along with Komatsu continue perfecting their world-class training program to get customers up and running as quickly as possible.

“When we first started, we relied heavily on physical trainers working with trainees in the pit,” Schellenberg recalls. “Today, we use a whole suite of products from cloud-based e-learning modules, production and equipment simulators to other tablet-based training tools that complement classroom and field training.” And with its OEM partners, SMS Equipment has built a state-of-the-art control centre simulator in Fort McMurray to assist in training AHS dispatch supervisors.

Successfully supporting autonomous deployments demands a new level of relationship between the distributor and the OEM. Rather than the traditional model where the distributor supports the customer and relies on the OEM for factory support, the AHS integrated support team based in Fort McMurray consists of engineering and technical resources from Modular Mining Systems, Komatsu and SMS Equipment, under the latter’s program management leadership. Each organization supplies its core expertise on different areas of the system. Moreover, the team is fully integrated into the customer’s work processes.

It’s a big challenge for today’s customer as the mining technology space becomes increasingly complex with deployments in more challenging, remote locations.

“It is difficult to assess all the different technologies available today and find the right solution and support model that will give the returns our customers are looking for,” Schellenberg says. “Many technologies that can enhance staffed operations are coming from autonomous technology development.”

Examples include guided spotting technology to assist operators to efficiently spot at shovels and dumps, and safety enhancements such as obstacle detection and collision avoidance technologies. A fully autonomous mining solution will not be a fit for all customers, so SMS Equipment works with them to determine the right technology to deliver on their needs.

As more and more mines adopt AHS technology, new savings soon become apparent. In addition to the enhanced safety margins, “as operators learn to manage their production environment to maximize the capabilities of the system, they begin to realize substantial production gains over staffed operations,” Schellenberg says. “This means our customers can do the same amount of work with less equipment.”

Maintenance costs are also optimized with Komatsu customers reporting on average a 10% reduction in costs. One area of note is tires — each truck has six tires so reports of 40% increases in tire life add up to big savings.

Momentum grows

Advances in Komatsu’s AHS technology with joint SMS Equipment support continue apace. For example, mines can now run multiple sizes of autonomous trucks: the 930E-AT (320-tonne capacity) and the new 980E-AT (400-tonne capacity) in the same system. The planned enhancements will enable manned haul trucks of any make to safely interoperate with Komatsu AHS trucks in a blended fleet operation; and safety systems are further bolstered with new technology deployments like the ODS3 obstacle detection system.

It’s not about to end there. “In the near term, I think we will see the use of drone technology to enhance autonomous system performance,” Schellenberg says. “The ability to do work such as surveying and site production observations/feedback without having to send a human into the pit will increase safety and system productivity.” New technologies will be leveraged to connect front-line maintenance technicians via live video links with global subject matter experts in real-time to support the efficient diagnosis and repair of equipment.

What’s on the horizon? SMS Equipment sees a steady progression from the standalone AHS to a more integrated total autonomous mining solution: drill automation is well under way and semi-autonomous dig unit technology is already being implemented. And in parallel with machine control technology advancements is the data analytics stream, to better monitor production and understand how to fully optimize the fleet. It all adds up to a technology revolution merging connected data and control technology to continuously optimize production, maximize reliability, all in a safe operating environment.

“As these two technologies begin to mature in the mining space, the use of artificial intelligence tools to merge them together will further disrupt the conventional mining business,” Schellenberg predicts.

This article was provided by SMS Equipment. For more details, visit equipment/advanced-technologies/autonomoushaulage- systems.html.

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1 Comment » for Bringing autonomous haulage to the oil sands
  1. Lesley Cooper says:

    Are these trucks able to operate in Canadian winters and soft roads?

    Is production reduced by using autonomous trucks?

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