Transportation is one of the most crucial steps in the mining industry. All the gold in the world is worth next to nil with no place to go, so an expedient and extensive road network is imperative for success.
Mining haul roads are not engineered and constructed in the same fashion as standard tarmac commuter roads, such are the stresses placed on their surface by the sheer weight of the haulage vehicles and their loads; a typical Komatsu 980E-4 Ultra Class haulage truck, for example, weighs over 260 tonnes on its own, and over 600 tonnes when fully loaded.
As such, the slightest variations in road surface can lead to considerable maintenance issues for trucks over time due to the strains placed on the vehicle’s tyres, hydraulics and other associated parts. Minute road degradations that lead to even a 1 per cent rolling resistance (i.e. the percentage of frictional pull against the vehicle’s direction of movement caused by the weight of the truck’s vertical load pushing down on the axle), can cause a sizable increase in fuel consumption, haulage time and maintenance costs.
Traditionally, specified engineers are used to survey and inspect road quality, but with the advent of automated drone technology, this may become a thing of the past. Drones can fly overhead and scan roads with the use of highly advanced digital elevation models that are detailed with a precision invisible to human perception.
Yahel Nov, vice president of business development for Israeli drone firm Airobotics is currently expanding operations into Australia. His company has produced a pilotless UAV, the first of its kind to receive certification from an aviation authority (in this case, the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel, aka CAAI). He explains that drones will become increasingly important within mining for OH&S and efficiency purposes.
“They are great for haul road optimisation, providing frequent reports to the mine operators about those specific areas where haul roads have deviated the most from the design model because those are the roads that have a direct impact on diesel costs and repairs,” he explains. “They are also great for automated inspection of slurry lines, conveyer belts and tailing dams; it’s the dangerous and dirty jobs we’ve been able to replace.
“The people who you’d think we are replacing are actually championing this technology.”
Since inspections can be carried out speedily and with greater accuracy, structural problems can be resolved more quickly than ever before. Automated drones may also serve further potential applications beyond haul road maintenance, such as deployment in the expedient assessment of leaks, spillages and other such accidents. Use of automated planes as a haulage option is a different story however, and largely held back by the insurance industry.
Automated haul trains are another form of transport experiencing a surge of interest within the mining industry, although integration varies from company to company. Rio Tinto is a notable early adopter of automated train investment, having recently completed a successful 100km pilot test from Wombat Junction to Paraburdoo in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), another of the ‘big four’ Australian mining companies, has taken a somewhat more reticent approach in its adoption of the technology, having instead settled on a cruise control system it expects to provide a greater ROI than complete automation. Fortescue’s approach presents a typical example of investor reluctance with regards to long haul road automation due to the typically high upfront costs associated with bleeding edge consumer technology, though it is believed automation will hold much greater cost benefits down the line once the kinks are ironed out and the technology is perfected.
Currently though, the most prevalent and obvious use of automation technology in mining is the now-omnipresent trucks themselves, which have become increasingly important over the last decade. Rio Tinto’s remotely operated Automatic Haulage System, comprising a fleet of Komatsu trucks, has become an industry standard since its inception as part of the producer’s Mine of the Future program 9 years ago. Now in 2017, one of the newest trucks — Komatsu’s recently unveiled Innovative Autonomous Haulage System (IHAS) — doesn’t even have a driver cab.
This omission isn’t merely a futuristic aesthetic concession — it actually has a practical engineering effect as well. Since the cab is removed, the front and rear of the vehicle look essentially identical, which results in more even weight distribution on the vehicle’s tyres and therefore less stress. This, in addition to high-performance 4WD shuttling, allows for the effective elimination of three-point turns, which saves time and boosts productivity in confined or hazardous spaces.
Cabless machines are not altogether new to the industry; Rio Tinto first tested cabless drills in 2010, with overall deployment following in 2014; BHP Billiton followed this with a rollout of 20 Atlas Pit Viper 271 rotary blasthole drill rigs in 2016. Currently the process of tramming – the process of moving the drill from hole to hole — is controlled manually, but designers at Atlas intend to fit future drills with a bevy of technological tricks, such as GPS receivers, automated inclinometers, anti-jam detection facilities, movement sensors in the tracks, and LiDAR sensors to track the vehicle’s surroundings.
According to BHP’s automation engineers, the autonomous drills possessed 20 per cent additional utilisation, were up to 16 per cent faster per hole, and had one-third additional drill capacity. Tramming automation via GPS technology can also allow for improved expediency and safety because it negates driver visibility issues caused by massive intermediary dust generation and allows for equivalent performance levels in both day- and night-time conditions.
ON THE ROAD
All this technological splendour is for naught without the infrastructure to support it of course, and that’s where we may see the biggest overhaul of all. Australia is a world leader in the use of automated trucks, but haul road infrastructure can still see improvements.
David Handel, Technical Director for environmental specialist company Reynolds Soil Technologies (RST), also shares this belief.
“Technology has taken the guesswork out of our clients’ decision-making process, allowing them to make scientifically supported implementation decisions to protect one their biggest assets, haul roads,” he explains. “This new era is also accelerating RST’s growth in this large and educated global market.”
RST are experts in the field of environmental road treatment, including water management, sediment solutions, soil erosion and dust control. Throughout the company’s history they have seen several high-tech, spray-on solutions; haul road dust suppressants; liquid polymer road stabiliser (for increased grip and traction); sediment and erosion controls; and liquid concentrate sediment treatments.
Its second-generation suite of products includes the use of nano-polymer technology allowing for ultra-low concentrations and dosages up to 90 per cent lower than before.
Proof Engineers, a company that specialises in haul road, dust suppression and auditing systems, is another company using technology to help improve the industry. Its newly developed road condition monitor (RCM) system is a bolt-on device that measures haul road conditions in a colour scale format; different colours indicate different levels of damage and dust across the road, providing an easy way to maintain compliance with dust levels and overall operational conditions.
Jordan Handel, a civil engineer at the company, explains that cost cutting is a primary factor in the use of the technology.
“The RCM concept has been around for a number of years, but what’s actually becoming more relevant these days is the pressures on mines to look for ways of saving costs and improving performance,” he explains. “Any relatively small changes that can be made to the road conditions or the running surface of a mine has a big impact on the bottom line, because it’s such a significant cost factor.
“[RCM] is an easy, automated process that supplies information on the condition of the haul roads to somebody in mine control (or a construction foreman) who can then look at how the roads are performing and identify the sections that need remediation.”
International trade event MEGATRANS2018 will shine a light on all these technologies and more when it runs at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from 10–12 May.
Connecting the Australian and international supply chain, the three-day expo, delivered in partnership with the Victorian Government, will bring together those who plan, implement and control the efficient and effective forward flow and storage of goods, services and related information between the point of origin and point of consumption.
A number of main sections comprise the show’s 30,000 square metres of space – Logistics & Materials Handling / Warehousing & Storage; Road Transport, Air, Sea & Rail; and Infrastructure; with a strong emphasis on technology right throughout.
The Port of Melbourne is a Supporting Sponsor of the show, with Isuzu backing the event as Platinum Sponsor and DB Schenker as the official Logistics Partner.
MEGATRANS2018 is also supported by a range of Association Partners, including the Australian Logistics Council (ALC); Victorian Transport Association (VTA); the Australian Peak Shippers Association (APSA) and the Freight & Trade Alliance (FTA); the National Transport Commission (NTC); the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA); and TCA.