Are we there yet? The road to automation and autonomous mining

Automation and autonomous solutions are frequently cited as being integral to smart mines of the future. Recently, mining media even speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic, may actually accelerate autonomous mining. Is the industry ready for this transformational leap? Or are there other directions to empower a remote work force.

In our continuing podcast series, Hexagon Mining division CTO Rob Daw, is joined by portfolio managers Fabien Kritter and Larry Estep to discuss how Hexagon is connecting autonomous ecosystems


Q: The words autonomous and autonomy can mean different things to different people. Rob, explain what those words mean to Hexagon when it comes to mining.

RD: I think we have traditionally thrown a lot of those words around – autonomy, autonomous, automation – in the mining environment and I think 99% of the time we relate it back to autonomous haulage or autonomous drills. There are two elements that we really look at from a Hexagon Mining point of view. One is focused around how we empower drills, haulage fleet and other aspects of a mining operation to operate without end users behind the wheel.

The other aspect of automation is how we connect the full ecosystem. How do we take this information from the field, our solutions and automate processes in the background to streamline our end users’ capabilities?

There are probably a few definitions out there. I think the two key areas we focus on in Hexagon Mining are around autonomous, in terms of the vehicles, and autonomy, a focus on the data, the workflow, and making sure that the decision process becomes more automated for our end users.

Q: Fabien, Larry, you oversee the autonomous and operations portfolios, respectively. I’ll start with you Fabien. What are the more obvious benefits Hexagon customers see from implementing semi-autonomous solutions, such as vehicle intervention and operator assist and reverse assist?

FK: I think those solutions are a stepping-stone toward autonomy, but not all customers will go to autonomy or have an operation which is adapted for autonomy. They may have other problems that need to be addressed and do not want to take a big leap toward autonomy, which is a radical change to their whole process and their way of mining.

They want to solve certain problems related to safety or productivity and vehicle intervention or reverse assist address those needs. Vehicle intervention is a safety solution that impacts production and reverse assist targets productivity but also impacts safety.

Q: And what about you, Larry? In your portfolio where do customers see the benefits?

LE: Fabien mentioned safety and productivity and I like to think about process control. The idea that enabling repeatable, replicable processes is a significant benefit of autonomous solutions. If you can find the optimal way to do things, whether that be in a load haul cycle or drilling, you can ensure that you’re controlling that process in a way that makes it repeatable and optimize whatever that workflow might be. Hexagon systems allow us to do that in a staged, phased manner where you start with data, you start with integration, you start with workflow processes and then start to automate some of those workflows. So, I think it’s a perfect solution.

Another thing that people don’t often talk about in autonomous solutions is operator health. In my experience, some mining activities are detrimental to operators’ health. I’m not just talking about safety. I’m talking about wear and tear on the human body. If you can find ways to extract those detrimental activities, you’re going to find that your operators are happier, healthier, and enjoy coming to work more. I think something that’s often overlooked is the ability to keep operators safe, but also healthy.

Q: Hexagon’s mission is to enable autonomous connected ecosystems, sometimes referred to by its acronym ACE. Rob, what does that mean for mining and how much of your roadmap decisions as the CTO are influenced by the ACE mission?

RD: An autonomous connected ecosystem makes sense of all the information, all the sensors, all the data capture points that we have out in the field for the end user. How do we connect that information, that data, to be able to make smart decisions in different parts of our business? In mining, it’s how do we make smarter decisions for our mining operations? How do we dispatch vehicles effectively? How do we make sure we’re mining the right areas at the right time?

When we break down what ACE is and where we’re heading with connected ecosystems, that’s where the power of Hexagon comes in. We have our planning, operations and safety portfolios, and we’re connecting all that information and data to give a holistic picture of what’s happening in a mining operation. There is a lot more situational awareness.

As we connect more and more of that information, our clients benefit from understanding what is happening in their operation right now. We’re feeding the right information to the right people at the right time, and it’s really enabling our clients to transition from that reactive “Hey yeah, I’m going to have a morning meeting and what did we do in the last 24 hours?” to that more proactive approach of saying “Well, I’m seeing this trend guys. How do we rectify this now?” instead of we could’ve, and we should’ve – that sort of mentality?

To hear the full interview, click here.

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