Komatsu’s aggressive expansion of its autonomous haulage system (AHS) is set to continue, 10 years after the first commercial deployment of the mining automation solution.
The company, which has more than 100 driverless trucks at mines in Australia, North and South America, hopes to use its track record in various mining environments to accelerate the pace of AHS deployment in the coming years.
Komatsu first trialled AHS at a Codelco copper mine in Chile in 2005, achieving the first deployment with the miner in January 2008.
A second deployment followed later in 2008 at a Rio Tinto iron ore mine in Western Australia. Rio now operates AHS trucks, which are controlled remotely in Perth, at four mines in the Pilbara region.
Today, AHS operates around the clock, hauling three different commodities in six mines across three continents. By the end of 2017, the Komatsu system had recorded a cumulative total of 1.5 billion tonnes of hauled materials.
But Komatsu is keen to rapidly expand this presence, with the benefits of AHS now increasingly known throughout the global industry.
The system has reduced load and haul unit costs by more than 15 per cent compared with conventional haulage methods, according to Komatsu. AHS has also improved tyre life by 40 per cent by reducing sudden acceleration and abrupt steering through its automation controls.
This won’t, however, be the first time Komatsu has taken an aggressive approach to the growth and uptake of AHS.
Komatsu general manager mining & construction Leo Kaloglou said the manufacturer’s AHS growth expectations in Australia had been aggressive since it announced an agreement at Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations in 2011.
“However, not long after 2012 the mining sector had a significant downturn, which did impact those expectations,” Kaloglou told Australian Mining. “I think with the uptick in commodities over the past 12 to 18 months we’re probably back on track for some consistent growth in this product.”
Rio’s fleet of autonomous trucks, which includes over 80 Komatsu machines, passed the one billion tonne milestone of hauled ore and waste material in the Pilbara during January.
The results of Rio’s automation program in the Pilbara has prompted the miner to expand its number of driverless trucks in 2018, giving Komatsu a kick-start in its AHS growth ambitions.
Chris Salisbury, Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive, said the miner’s planned expansion of its AHS fleet would provide opportunities for new roles, retraining, upskilling and redeployment.
“Hauling one billion tonnes autonomously is an impressive milestone for our business and again highlights Rio Tinto’s pioneering spirit when it comes to adopting revolutionary new technologies which are making the industry safer and more efficient,” Salisbury said.
Rio’s expansion includes retrofitting 48 Komatsu and Caterpillar trucks with AHS tech, the first of which was deployed at the Hope Downs 4 mine last September.
The miner also planned to retrofit 29 Komatsu haul trucks with the technology at the Brockman 4 operation, which will run entirely in AHS mode once this project has been completed in 2019.
The miner’s autonomous haul trucks, on average, operated an additional 1000 hours and at 15 per cent lower load and haul unit cost than conventional haul trucks in 2016.
Automation has become an integral part of Australia’s iron ore sector, with Rio, BHP, Fortescue and Roy Hill all establishing it as a key element of their haulage strategies.
While iron ore will continue to be an important market that grows AHS for Komatsu in Australia, it is also hopeful of expansion into other commodities, like it has achieved on an international scale.
“We were recently successful with a new AHS deployment in Canada at a large oil sands operation and continue to engage other mining houses working in varying commodity sectors for the same,” Kaloglou said.
“Diversity in our customer base will always drive improvement in our product and services and I see the deployment of AHS as no different.”
The type of miner using AHS may not be limited to the major miners in the years ahead either, Kaloglou added.
“As the AHS product develops and becomes more adaptable I think there are short- to medium-term opportunities for us to partner with mid-tier miners,” Kaloglou said.
Komatsu extended the benefits of AHS at operations with manned haul fleets through trials of an AHS retrofit kit with Rio last year.
I think with the uptick in commodities over the past 12 to 18 months we’re probably back on track for some consistent growth in this product.
The retrofit kit, mounted on a Komatsu electric drive standard truck 830E (nominal payload: 220t), enabled the truck to operate in autonomous mode.
As a result of the trial, Rio ordered the 29 AHS retrofit kits from Komatsu for installation on 830E trucks at the Brockman 4 mine.
In addition to expanding the retrofit kit to include other Komatsu models with electric drive standard trucks, the company also plans to enhance AHS’s mixed-operation functions.
The planned enhancements will enable manned haul trucks of any make to safely interoperate with Komatsu AHS trucks in a blended fleet operation.
Under this initiative, Komatsu has committed to providing mining customers with AHS solutions that meet the growing demand for the gradual transition from existing to fully automated mines.
“The potential for AHS retrofit is high for many customers and product; however, it always depends on the age of the fleets; the mining application and the economics,” Kaloglou said.
The potential of AHS is also dependent on several internal initiatives at Komatsu. For the product’s continued improvement, Kaloglou said the ongoing training of its people and clients, as well as collaborative efforts with the industry would be critical.
“Collaboration is the key factor of the success of the Komatsu AHS program. This relationship between us and our customers is one of a united team and we go to great lengths to ensure this is the case,” Kaloglou said.
“Of utmost importance to us is the need for the customer to be fully embedded in our team and vice versa; and for the customer to have full ownership of the project. This ensures as successful outcome for both.”
Like AHS over the past decade, collaboration with mining partners has become a crucial ingredient for operational success, and one that looks set to shape the next phase of Komatsu’s automaton story.
This article also appears in the April edition of Australian Mining.