Australia paves way to autonomous mining

BHP principal, mining systems in technology, Chirag Sathe expands on the vision for autonomous mining to bring greater safety to mine sites.

BHP principal, mining systems in technology, Chirag Sathe has challenged the perspective of many when it comes to autonomous operations.

Sathe, speaking at the AusIMM Minesafe International digital conference in September, opened audiences’ eyes to the potential of bringing automation to the moon or Mars.

He believes this scenario could form part of a teleremote operation that is made up of automated or semi-automated excavators, loaders and graders in the not so distant future.

“Everything that is mobile in mining (could be) automated or semi-automated,” Sathe says.

“What’s (most likely) to happen in the next five to 10 years (is) we will have trucks and water carts, drills and dozers, graders and light vehicles … automated.”

Such vision is propped up by the number of autonomous trucks operating in the Pilbara region of Western Australia alone.

As of this year, more than 300 autonomous trucks are already running in the region, enough to make Sathe consider Pilbara to be the region with the largest number of autonomous trucks in the world.

Autonomous trucks have been mobilised by all three major iron ore companies in Western Australia, including BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group, making Australia a frontrunner in the world of autonomous haulage.

The shift has brought tangible health and safety benefits across the workforce, the biggest of which is a reduction in musculoskeletal injuries.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of being in a manned haul truck, but there is so much vibration (to the body). We are definitely removing such injuries for the (operator) driving the truck for 10 hours (in) one shift seven days a week,” Sathe says.

The World Economic Forum predicted in 2017 that most mining machines would be automated by 2025.

The organisation predicted that along with automation and digitalisation, more than 1000 lives could be saved and 44,000 injuries avoided.

“That’s massive. That’s what we’re aiming for with automation. We should reduce fatal incidents and improve productivity at the same time,” Sathe says.

The production of iron ore in Western Australia rose from 143 million tonnes in 1999 to over 800 million tonnes in 2019.

Iron ore prices have also climbed from $US13 ($18.37) tonne in 2000 to more than $US90 tonne last year.

Such favourable conditions have pushed for even greater production as demand for iron ore increases, according to Sathe.

Mining companies that are therefore eager to meet future rising demand and achieve automation will need to build an interoperable mine for their mixed fleets.

Austmine, the industry body for Australia’s mining, equipment, technology and services (METS) sector, highlights interoperability as a key to the future of mining.

Although a lot of work is required for this future mine, Sathe believes the sector has already started on this journey.

The Australian mining sector is merely waiting for the interoperable mine to develop further before it becomes a reality.

This article also appears in the Nov-Dec edition of Safe to Work.