Getting value from Digital in Mining: Autonomous vehicles

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Getting value from Digital in Mining: Autonomous vehicles

Around the world, we see lots of hype and interest in applying digital technology to mining operations. We work with many clients to help them identify opportunities to extract value from new technology. Based on what we’re hearing and seeing, we have identified a few key areas where technology can change the game in the short term.


Autonomous and remote operated equipment promise to deliver step change productivity improvements. The remote operating and analysis center can power effective mobile short interval control and remote/autonomous machines. Other benefits include:

  • Ability to see the whole mine/asset complex
  • Knowledge and analytic power to make the decisions
  • Can coordinate the total asset and corridor
  • Respond to market/customer demands

Different companies are pursuing differing visions of the role and objectives for a remote center, perhaps an evolution. Some see the ROC as a Remote analytic center focused on planning, with supervisors maintaining control of operational decision-making in the field. Others see it as a remote decision-making center.

Accordingly, there is a real need to ensure you build the right relationships between the ROC and the operations. You need regular interactions, a managed transition, clear decision-making rights and expectations, and above all, lots of communication and work to align all parties around a common view of the future and the benefits of the new system.

At the front lines, autonomous vehicles can operate in adverse conditions-- heat, cold, air quality, altitude—without having to make allowances for human beings inside the vehicles. Eliminating humans also minimizes blast delays and allows full shift operations. Clearly, there is also a reduction in headcount, but we find this is not always immediately captured. While drivers can be eliminated from the org chart, there is a meaningful financial cost to letting them go, as unions and regulators are very sensitive to decreasing headcount in certain geographies. Further, adding autonomous means hiring additional people with digital expertise, often in city centres, who don’t necessarily work cheap.

Iron ore players are at the leading edge, particularly in the Pilbara. In many ways, they are a perfect environment for autonomous, as they have large, consistent operations, and hiring is a challenge. There are some claims of 20% productivity improvement, but the business case still isn’t outstanding. There is a need to drive to multiple machines per operator, and it hasn’t been achieved yet, so the economics are not optimal yet.

Further, the local community is understandably concerned about removing jobs at the site and replacing them in a city centre. While the productivity improvements aren’t in the bank yet, everyone believes the learning curve is real, and that the savings will be there. Of course, the savings are easier to achieve when you really understand your business case, especially for underground operations.

To be clear, these gains are not available in every production environment. Clearly, Autonomous has proved its worth in large open pit environments. However, it does require some fairly dramatic operational changes, like setting up an exclusion zone where no people are permitted, to avoid unfortunate accidents.

Autonomous equipment also offers strong returns in underground (because the vehicles can continue work through shift change) and remote fly-in, fly-out environments (because of the higher costs for talent). However, one size does not fit all—the technology has to be matched to the right conditions. In many places, we are years away from autonomous being an economically viable solution.

Want to learn more about extracting value from new technology in mining? Read the full blog: