U&M is a mining contractor providing open pit mining services and movement of large volumes of soil and rock for the construction industry and, throughout its 45 years, has always sought to employ new technologies in its equipment and processes.
Given this and knowing that the technology of autonomous equipment was advancing at a fast pace – both in urban vehicles, in agriculture and even in mining – we began, in 2017, to think of a way to have our mining trucks operating autonomously.
The main motivation for employing autonomous trucks is undoubtedly safety! The autonomous works in the rain, fog and at during critical operator fatigue periods without any problem. Human skills will always be a great advantage and possibly more efficient in some cases but the autonomous is a continuous, repetitive and extremely precise process where the estimated technical parameters become the real values, reproduced with great fidelity.
As U&M is a service provides and does not have its own mining operation, the start of the autonomous truck project was based on 3 important principles:
1) The autonomous truck would need to maintain its original cab with all controls (steering, pedals, levers, display, …) to operate as a manned equipment through a “Manual /Autonomous” mode selector. The reason is that we may come across situations where unmanned operation is not possible, either for technical or customer reasons.
2) The autonomous truck could not require WiFi network or complex Radio Frequency communication systems as these mean the installation and maintenance of towers and antennas in the customer areas, making the business model less flexible.
3) As we operate in areas where there is interaction with equipment not managed by U&M (customer, third party, etc.), the autonomous truck should be able to work together with these machines (autonomous or manned) and under any operational and road conditions (narrow, wide, etc.).
With this in mind, U&M developed a very simple project in its content, installation and applicability, which basically consists in reproducing all actions that were recorded by a qualified operator. Therefore, to create an autonomous operation, a skilled and experienced operator simply operates the autonomous truck, for example, from the excavator to the dump, and from there the operator can leave the truck and it will reproduce the entire route and speeds, identical to those performed by the operator. This is called “Mission.” The mission generators can be installed to any equipment, inside the autonomous truck itself, in another non-autonomous truck or even at pit supervisor’s pickup truck.
Once the missions are generated, they are transmitted by the equipment that generated them and stored at the mine production control system, known as “Dispatch”. It will always be the dispatch system (also developed by U&M) that will send the missions to the autonomous truck because, although autonomous, it only operates receiving orders from the dispatch.
The operation of the autonomous truck comprises basically of a navigation system and a collision avoidance system. The navigation system is responsible for following the mission created and it is the one that commands the steering, brakes, gears, indicators and others. The route is generated by GPS, but driving is commanded by and inertial system with GPS tracking and RTK redundancy (ground base station with defined latitude, longitude and elevation). This set ensures full coverage in mine conditions (slopes, confined areas) and even in bad weather (clouds or rain).
The collision avoidance system comprises of Radar (electromagnetic wave), LiDar (pulsed laser beam) and Sonar (ultrasonic) detection sensors. The radar detects targets at a long range, and takes the first collision control action, which is the speed control. Then, LiDar, with its cloud of laser points, forms an image, like a scanner, starting a new process by analyzing possibilities of maneuvering and deviating the obstacle. As in some mining operations overtaking is prohibited, the dispatch may or may not enable the autonomous to overtake the obstacles. If the truck comes closer to the obstacle, at a reduced speed and without the possibility of deviating, the third detection system, the sonar, activates the emergency brakes.
In case of any type of failure such as low tire pressure, loss of route, electrical or mechanical failure, active fault codes, etc … the brakes are applied and a message will be sent to the dispatch requesting the presence a responsible person to verify what happened and solve the problem.
For the loading/dumping process, the autonomus truck will always arrive at the loading/dumping point/crusher and will be at a waiting position that will not disrupt the production flow. At the loading bay, for example, as soon as the excavator operator defines the right the moment to load the autonomous truck, he triggers a command on his dash, sending the autonomous authorization to maneuver closer to the excavator. This command includes the latitude/longitude/elevation of the excavator stick, allowing the truck to maneuver and park at a suitable loading position. The same happens at the dumping point, where the truck waits for the authorization to dump to be sent, also with the geographical coordinates, by the dozer operator at the waste dump, stockpile or the crusher.
It is important to note that this technology was developed at U&M, allowing its processes and characteristics to be adjusted according to the customer and operation, the technical assistance is quick, even at the most remote regions, as all involved in the project will be present and available to adjust the model.
U&M autonomous truck is a recent development and, despite exhaustive tests both at controlled and mining sites, has not generated a large database of production, fuel consumption or components life data results to compare with manned trucks. But knowing that it is unbeatable in safety, we consider the use of autonomous trucks in mining a point of no return!
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