The fully automated mine has long since passed the days of concept and evolved into a reality.
If the industry is to survive and grow, on this planet and elsewhere, total automation of many of the processes is the way forward.

According to professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia, John Meech, autonomous vehicle operations can help increase productivity by between 15 to 20 per cent, and truck uptimes by up to a fifth, with Rio Tinto automated fleets recording a 12 per cent production increase compared to manned vehicles.

Rio Tinto, BHP, Roy Hill, and Fortescue are making massive strides forward in implementing autonomous haulage systems in the Pilbara, forging a new place for the technology, combining them with manned operations; particularly in terms of Rio's Mine of the Future program and BHP's automated operations centre, both located in Perth.

Hitachi is also trialling its autonomous vehicle systems at the Meandu coal mine in Queensland.

Total automation has also taken another angle with Vale, in Brazil, looking to go completely truckless by using mobile conveyor belts.

In economic and safety terms automation is the way forward, as it allows for predictable and repeatable operations, which in turn allows for greater confidence in analysis and throughput.

Currently the industry is in the early days of this evolution, and working through the teething problems typically associated with any new technology.

One stand out factor for automation is that it was pegged as being safer than many current techniques, as by removing the man from the operation you remove them from the risk.

But what happens if the risk comes to them?

Automation, like any system on the mine, is not infallible.

An Australian first?

A recent incident in Western Australia at BHP's Jimblebar iron ore mine saw what may be the first serious collision incident involving an autonomous vehicle, after one collided with a manned water cart on the West Australian mine site.

According to the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum, the control room operator had programmed the autonomous haul truck to turn right at a pre-defined intersection and carry out a loop so it could be repositioned underneath an excavator on the pit floor.

While the intersection and loop existed in the control system, it was not physically signposted or marked on the ground to notify worker operated vehicles.

"A manned water cart was travelling in the opposite direction when the autonomous truck was about to turn right, the water cart driver was not aware of the autonomous truck's pre-assigned path and - on recognising it - tried to take evasive action," the DMP report states.

"On detecting the water cart in its assigned path of travel, the autonomous truck's speed (about 40 kilometres per hour) and response time meant it could not prevent the collision.

"The two vehicles collided, resulting in significant damage to the autonomous truck; the water cart driver received minor injuries."

It went on to state that change management processes for planning and assigning roads in the control system were inadequate, and that while an awareness system had been installed in the water cart to allow drivers to monitor autonomous trucks' paths at the time of the collision the water cart driver was not aware of the intended actions of the autonomous truck.

BHP confirmed the incident, telling Australian Mining that "in August 2014, a manned water cart and an autonomous truck collided at BHP Billiton Iron Ore's Autonomous Haulage Production Trial at Jimblebar.

"No one was injured as a result of the incident.

"A thorough investigation into the incident has been conducted and measures have been implemented to prevent the incident from occurring again."

The spokesperson added that this one-off incident has not dampened the miner's push into automation, stating that "autonomous operations at Jimblebar are ongoing", although they did not define the measures implemented to ensure a similar incident doesn't re-occur.

The DMP went on to call for the elimination, or at the very least mitigation, of manned activities within autonomous mining areas.

It called for greater training of workers in their interactions with autonomous vehicles, an aspect of future mining that is likely to become more prevalent in day to day operations as automated vehicle become a common feature on site.

According to a number of experts this while this appears to be the first major incident in Australia - with the understanding that a similar incident may have occurred at Coldeco's mines in Chile - it is unlikely to be the last.

Source: Australian Mining - see full article