When one of the world’s largest gold miners, Gold Fields, was looking to develop a self-driving truck for their Australian underground mines. Universal Field Robots’ (UFR) team of robotics, mechanical engineers and software developers jumped at the invitation to tender. Within a short timeframe, they were selected to work with Gold Fields’ existing fleet to create a solution, that is now being tested and trialled on site.
The Australian mining industry is currenting facing several challenges which present unique opportunities to those operating in the sector including Gold Fields Australia. Some of these are:
- Labour Shortages
Mining is increasingly going deeper underground to follow scarcer resources and to avoid further impacts on the environment, which is increasing the degree of difficulty for operators. Underground mining comes with its challenges at the best of times . Operations are further impacted by the labour market that is experiencing major shortages, however this offers mining companies the opportunity to look at new and innovative ways to attract and retain talent. There is evidence of companies offering $10,000 bonuses to employees to refer new starters. Recruitment initiatives like this will solve the problem in the short-term, but the evidence indicates that labour shortages are part of a trend of employees turning away from low value work for better quality jobs. This trend appears to be across the board with construction, agriculture and defence all struggling to fill roles. One longer-term solution to labour shortages is to investigate prospects for the automation of simple, repetitive, and hazardous tasks best left to robotic machines to fill the gaps.
As the world undergoes a rapid transition towards greener energy production, the need for metals such a lithium, copper, gold, and nickel are increasing. Mines are under pressure to mine metals more efficiently, whilst lowering their carbon footprint and dealing with a plethora of other challenges like upskilling and reskilling workers in an increasingly complex legislative environment.
- Big data
Greener energy production is also characterised by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This term describes the current and developing environment where trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality, are changing the way people live and work. Metals are needed. More gold is needed for example, as it is plated on critical electrical connections for computers and wiring. Lithium-ion is a critical component in energy storage in the battery, smartphone, renewables, and robotics industries. Nickel has a huge role to play in stainless steel (and a lot of infrastructure is needed as global population grows).
Gold Fields’ operations in Australia have over 4,000 Australian employees to mine gold ore which is processed into gold bars. The four Australian mines are located in the Goldfields region of Western Australia.
At Gold Fields’ operations, underground mine workers typically work 12-hour shifts, and it can take up to one hour of that time to travel from the surface to the underground work area and another hour to travel back at the end of their shift. During shift changes when the mine is clear of workers, the ore is blasted and a delay is required to clear gasses from the air (a combination of chemicals from explosives and inherent gasses trapped in the rocks) within the mine.
Gold Fields identified a key improvement opportunity: to use self-driving trucks to haul additional ore while the underground mine is clear of workers. Universal Field Robots stepped up to the challenge when invited to tender in late 2022.
- Step 1: Transforming a manual truck
UFR’s first step was to convert a normal manual truck into one that could be digitally operated. For the project, one of Gold Fields’ older trucks – “Truck 17” – was transported from Kalgoorlie to UFR’s Brisbane research and development centre.
UFR’s integration engineers designed sensors, wiring looms, hydraulic modifications, and fitted out the truck for remote operation. Five weeks later a proof-of-life test was carried out to ensure all key systems, such as the steering and brakes, could be actuated from a remote control. At this point “Truck 17” was able to be driven like a large toy truck, albeit in a slightly more reserved manner given its 65 tons of coyote flattening momentum.
- Step 2: Configuration
With the physical integration of “Truck 17” underway, engineers were also behind the scenes working out the mine integration for the driverless trucks. UFR engineers met with the Gold Fields mine site team to outline a workflow for how trucks could be autonomously operated during shift changes. Using this workflow, UFR engineers configured the user interface, mission control, truck behaviours, and integration with other mine systems (such as reporting production and maintenance data).
- Step 3: Simulation
A digitally scanned map of the mine was used by the UFR team to build a simulation which allowed virtual driving in a digital twin until the software would satisfactorily drive the truck from the bottom of the mine to the surface. In the mine, the automation system must find the truck and accurately display its location to the haulage controller on the user interface displayed at the surface control desk. The virtual simulation was an effective way to test multiple changes, prove performance and make any final adjustments without taking the truck back to the mine.
- Step 4: Safety Systems
Integral to “Truck 17’s” automation was a safety system comprising high reliability controllers which monitor and control key safety aspects of the truck’s operations. Engineers qualified in functional safety carefully designed and assessed aspects from the red “stop” button, to the truck brakes to ensure it complied with required standards (ISO 35198 and ISO 65108). “Truck 17” testing included adverse scenarios, such as a rock obstruction on the road to ensure it could be brought to a to a safe and controlled stop.
- Step 5: Factory acceptance testing
By the end of March 2023, factory acceptance testing was carried out for “Truck 17’s” end-to-end systems and the truck was equipped with all sensors for full autonomy. Full autonomy feature testing and tuning was carried out at the UFR testing site in a special course which mimicked a section of Gold Fields’ underground mine.
- Step 6: Onsite testing
After passing factory acceptance tests, “Truck 17” was transported to the mine in the second quarter of 2023. A section of the Gold Fields’ mine is fitted with safety barriers to isolate it from working areas and allow the truck to be driven without risk. Testing is ongoing to confirm performance of the truck automation systems, its localisation and communications prior to a final full-scale test running in the full decline.
Digital transformation in mining is picking up pace as enabling technologies become more available, and as miners think outside the square to address major bottlenecks like skills and staff shortages. Couple these factors with the need to adapt greener technologies, and it’s easy to see why self-driving underground trucks are on the rise. Fortunately, case studies such as these are becoming available to the industry, from which others can learn and adapt. Thank you to the Gold Fields Australia team for their vision and support on this valuable project.