Remote control and autonomous equipment influence aggregate operations


January 25, 2017

Operations Illustrated header
By Tina Grady Barbaccia, Contributing Editor

Increase safety and productivity through technology

Understanding and implementing remote control (RC) and autonomous equipment and processes into your aggregates facility can be likened to the famous quote from hockey great Wayne Gretzky — “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” That’s how Richmond, Va.-based Luck Stone Corp. views RC and autonomous operations. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when,” and the when may come faster than anticipated.

“Remote control is a proven technology and another tool,” says Travis Chewning, P.E., senior director of engineering and operational support for Luck Stone Corp. “It’s there to give the operator options to access more reserves and not worry about safety. Remote control for us is here and now, and we see a tremendous opportunity to increase our reserves and get into small, narrow reserves that we can get to safely.”

Autonomous fleets are the next step. Chewning says it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t become the norm in the next 20 to 25 years. “It won’t just be ‘a flip of a switch,’” he points out, “but it will come up faster than we think. Autonomy will be part of our future, and we’d like to be prepared for that.”

Chewning also sees “tremendous opportunity” for remote-control drilling and the ability to remotely load explosives or operate an excavator in a remote situation.

Mike Wentworth, product manager of Atlas Copco Surface Drilling Equipment for Mining, Rock Excavation and Construction LLC, speaks to this. “The most obvious [advantage] is operator environment,” Wentworth says. “The operator is back from the bench wall with a better viewing point and solid footing while tramming over rough terrain or around obstacles. But even operating on solid, level ground, remote control removes the driller from the noise and dust of the drilling operation, which are contributors to operator fatigue during a work shift.”

Although not yet in use in the United States, Komatsu has fully adopted the concept of autonomous operation with its Innovative Haulage Vehicle (AHV). This autonomous vehicle — still in development — was unveiled at MINExpo 2016 in September. Dump trucks equipped with its Autonomous Haulage System have hauled more than 1 billion tons of overburden and minerals at large-scale mines since 2008.

The haulage system doesn’t even have a cabin or room for a driver. Instead, the unmanned vehicle eliminates the cabin and is being designed to optimize load distribution. The autonomous haul truck integrates controls, wireless networking, and obstacle detection to facilitate the unmanned operation. Despite the dump bed only being able to articulate in one direction, the AHV can maneuver and operate at the same speed regardless of the direction it is headed without a true front or rear.

Komatsu expects that this new vehicle will considerably improve the productivity at mines where existing unmanned haulage vehicles face challenging conditions, such as slippery ground due to frequent rain/snow fall, as well as confined spaces for loading.

Remote control and autonomous operations


Travis Chewning, P.E., is senior director of engineering & operational support for Richmond, Va.-based Luck Stone Corp. Chewning joined Luck Stone in 1999 and has enjoyed a career in engineering supporting the operations team. He is passionate about the company’s innovation and the aggregate industry.

Mike Wentworth is product manager of Atlas Copco Surface Drilling Equipment for Mining, Rock Excavation and Construction LLC. Wentworth is a product expert and works directly with many Atlas Copco customers.

Craig McGinnis is product marketing manager, wheel loaders, at Komatsu America Corp. He is responsible for the WA380 through WA600 size wheel loaders. McGinnis has been with Komatsu for six years, starting in marketing engineering, and spending the last four years working with loaders in the rubber tire group. He has a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Voices of Experience
Travis Chewning

It was not uncommon at Luck Stone to pass on stone reserves that would put its loader operators at risk. Embracing the company motto of “Ignite Innovation,” Luck Stone realized it could find a way to access these valuable reserves and keep loader operators safe. Enter remote-control (RC) loaders.

The Richmond, Va.-based producer currently runs two remote-control (RC) loaders at its Bull Run operation. “We see the most value in keeping an operator safe when we have need to dig in an area, but want to remove the operator from the hazard,” says Travis Chewning, P.E., senior director of engineering and operational support for Luck Stone Corp. “Now, we have an alternative tool to keep our people safe.”

As Luck Stone was developing the Bull Run operation and installing the gyratory primary crusher, there was a slot that had to be shot in muck. “We used an RC loader to muck the slot because we couldn’t put a person in there. We had to work from the top down,” Chewning says. “We used the RC loader and then scaled the highwall. This project saved us $30,000 to $50,000.”

Autonomous equipment for safety and efficiency is also on Luck Stone’s radar. It experimented with an autonomous haul truck, but it’s no longer in operation. It had been in development for two years, running in a safeguarded, prototype way. However, the company it had been working with went out of business, halting the program.

“Autonomous hauling is attractive because it offers efficiency and productivity gains,” Chewning says. “The performance of drivers is variable, but autonomous trucks perform the same way. There are periods throughout the day where you need more or fewer trucks.

“Autonomously adding or taking away a truck to meet needs gives the ability to right-size the fleet when needed instead of finding a driver.”

Craig McGinnis

Advances in automation brings myriad advantages to the aggregate industry, helping producers with reliability and predictability, says Craig McGinnis, product marketing manager, wheel loaders, Komatsu America Corp. The heavy equipment manufacturer headquartered in Rolling Meadows, Ill., offers autonomous functions on some of its equipment and remote-control and semi-autonomous machines “to maintain efficiency and productivity while keeping operators out of high-risk applications — and to make their lives easier.”

An autonomous function such as auto-dig enables an operator “to just drive into the pile without any other operator input,” McGinnis points out. “It makes digging easier and provides repeatability and predictability.” Ultimately, he says, it doesn’t matter to many jobsite managers if a person or a computer is running the loader. “They just plan on producing so many tons per hour,” McGinnis says. “Autonomous functions help with this predictability. Anything that can make the equipment faster and more productive so you can load the hopper and truck quicker and get it out of the gate quicker makes a difference.”

Using remote-control technology can help contribute to this efficiency, as well as keeping equipment operators safe in challenging conditions. Running the OEM’s D155i-8 radio-controlled dozer equipped with “intelligent Machine Control” is done with a joystick without an operator actually being in the cab. This may seem nerve-wracking without a true sense or feel of the surface area, but the intelligent technology enables the dozer to operate in automatic mode, from heavy dozing to fine grading.

“Getting a good dozer operator or motor grader operator is worth its weight in gold,” McGinnis says. “Using technology, the operator learning curve is nearly cut in half. You don’t need to find operators with 20 to 25 years of experience. This makes it very easy to switch operators between machines. The key is faster, more productive machines.”

Mike Wentworth

Incorporating “intelligent” equipment is a smart move for aggregates operations. “This is the way the industry is going — it’s where it’s at now, actually,” notes Mike Wentworth, product manager, Atlas Copco Surface Drilling Equipment for Mining, Rock Excavation and Construction LLC.

With advances in equipment technology, come concerns about upkeep and related expense. Wentworth dispels those concerns: “Computerized control has been around long enough to dispel any initial market concerns that computerized rigs would be a maintenance concern.” Adding to that, he notes that “reliability, increased productivity, and enhanced safety are really never drawbacks. Remote-control drills aren’t replacing existing technology, but adding to it.”

Automated features that are now available can be remotely controlled to minimize opportunities for human error and add precision not humanly possible, Wentworth explains. For example, features such as a hole navigation system and auto positioning help producers with improving fragmentation characteristics by precisely locating holes, accurately collaring and drilling them to the required depth and inclination, and drilling holes precisely to plan, regardless of the terrain above the hole and how it affects rig attitude, he says, adding “This precision means blast designers can open up their patterns, reducing the amount of explosive required to get the blast characteristics being sought.”

A computerized rig control platform and automated features also mean the driller does not need to remain at the rig. “Operation from a remote-control console is exactly the same as controlling it from the driller’s console at the rig,” Wentworth says. “You can now confidently drill benches with uncertain ground conditions. Rig performance and fleet maintenance data can be monitored and logged real-time from anywhere. Comparing performance of a rig or tooling in one part of the quarry to another allows maximum control over productivity and profitability.”

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