September 22, 2017
Autonomous mine sites may seem like science fiction or something better suited to large-scale mines in the iron or copper industries but — like rapid innovation in the cell phone industry — the pace of change is accelerating and may arrive in the aggregates industry sooner than you think.
The upside is compelling. Cat says the production gains are significant: 40 percent in loading and hauling, 34 percent in drilling and blasting, and 30 percent-plus in dozing. These increases are realized by equipment operating more hours each day and working more quickly and accurately. With loading and hauling, for example, autonomous trucks in good dump areas can reduce total dump time by 10 seconds compared to manned vehicles. In crusher operations, Cat says that data shows throughput improvements of more than 10 percent within a week of implementing autonomous haulage.
At Caterpillar’s scalability lab, its development team is running simulations of mine sites with 100 simulated trucks and 250 pieces of equipment including loaders, dozers, motor graders, water trucks, and more. It does this to stay ahead of its largest automated site, which is currently running 56 793F trucks in a combined manned/unmanned operation.
“The goal is to stay 25 to 30 percent ahead of the largest mine we are running today,” says Dan Hellige, Caterpillar’s mining technology sales manager. “When that customer wants to grow, we have to have confidence that the system can handle that growth.” But, while Cat tests the upsize boundaries of the system, scalability works both ways.
“As we look at NextGen and what we’ll be delivering in 2018, we’re also scaling it down; not just changing the technology platform, but changing the functionality,” Hellige explains. “We’ve got thousands of quarries out there that have 10 to 12 trucks. They don’t need the full functionality of a MineStar suite, but they still want to use digital information to help them make decisions about their mines. NextGen MineStar will be able to scale down to their operations and their needs.”
The focus is to create a broader and deeper base of knowledge that can be shared down in the organizational structure to help people make quick, well-informed decisions, says Craig Watkins, Cat’s commercial manager. “It’s truly about taking gobs and gobs of data and turning it into actionable information,” he notes.
Key steps for Caterpillar’s automation expansion include adapting its automation for use on mixed fleets, developing strategies for manned/unmanned equipment fleets, and offering various entry points into automation.
“MineStar has been brand agnostic from the get go,” Hellige says. Automation development begins with components on a piece of equipment, then the equipment itself, and finally a fleet of equipment. “It’s a systems integration challenge,” he says. This year, Cat is turning its attention to the fleet level of development as it adapts its technology stack for other OEMs’ equipment. Cat will pilot its Command for Drilling on a P&H 320 XPC drill in the fourth quarter of this year and on a P&H 120A in the first half of next year. By the first quarter of 2019, Command for Hauling will be commercially available on a Komatsu 930E in 2019.
To support evolving technology needs, Cat is developing additional partnerships. “When we build a solution…we’re committed to delivering the best outcome we can,” says Bill Dears, Caterpillar mining technology product manager. “If there is a need we can’t meet, we’ll find a technology that does.” These partnerships, Cat says, will help it manage the velocity, overhead, and capacity needed to create and expand customized solutions.
In terms of the “change management” that accompanies adoption of automation, a big challenge lies with the mix of manned and unmanned fleets, particularly with operators who are concerned about working around unmanned vehicles. “Humans have free will. The automated world doesn’t,” Hellige notes. “Getting those two things to work together is quite interesting.”
Cat approaches safety with a system that offers a minimum 2+1 layers of protection. The first two layers of protection are GPS and LIDAR technologies, which track the locations of each piece of equipment and allow zones to be locked out of operation when needed. These systems keep operators safe as long as they are in a vehicle. In addition, operators in autonomous areas are given an A-Stop button that allows them to shut down all autonomous equipment within several hundred yards with the push of a button. In the 4.5 years since operations began, autonomous trucks have hauled more than 440 short tons of material with no lost-time injuries.
As producers consider the use of automation in their sites, they have various points of entry via the modular blocks of the company’s technology offerings. Cat Terrain uses guidance technology for drilling, grading, and loading operations. Cat Fleet provides real-time tracking of machines and material movement. Pieces of Cat Command offer truck-spotting and load-positioning technologies. Remote-control dozing allows operators to take control of machines that perform production dozing autonomously.
“We’re committed to delivering technology solutions that can make a difference for mines of every size and with every type of equipment,” Watkins says. “We want to help get them started down that path, wherever it makes sense for their operation.”