TECHNOLOGY

Enter the swarm

MINERS might consider taking a leaf from the insect world’s books and consider replacing their large hauler trucks with lots of smaller ones.

Could a swarm concept work for haulage?

Could a swarm concept work for haulage?

One of the constants of the mining industry has been that equipment sizes have grown larger.

Even in the underground realm where there are some real constraints to increasing the size of the equipment, trucks and loaders have grown larger. Once 45t was considered gargantuan. These days there are underground haul trucks carrying 20t more than that.

On the surface the constraint has been what the tyres can handle. About 363t, or 400 short tons in the old measure, is about what a set of six of the largest off the road tyres can handle.

Over in Belarus that was not good enough so Belaz decided it would add another two wheels to the front of the truck and upped the payload to 454t.

However, while the trucks have become larger, the way they are used is little different to what it was back at the end of the 19th century. It was once said that if a miner from Kennecott, Rio Tinto's massive copper mine in Utah, US, from when it started out in 1903 looked into the pit today he would be able to work out what was going on. The equipment may be larger but the approach has not changed markedly.

BHP lead project manager Leveson Sutton told last year's Robotics and Automation Queensland conference that autonomous trucks, at least, may look completely different in the future.

He pointed to the Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle Komatsu unveiled at Minexpo in 2016.

Most notable about the IAHV is its lack of a cab. In theory the machine will be able to go as fast in reverse as it does forward, meaning it can drive straight to the loading tool, be loaded and drive straight back to the dump point, creating a potential time saving.

Komatsu has not said how much time this is expected to save and, therefore, what the productivity benefits will really be.

However, Sutton said that was an example of where mining trucks could go.

He also believes that instead of getting bigger, trucks may get smaller.

"We also need a fleet management system with the granularity and detail that can despatch not just six trucks on a circuit but 30 trucks," Levenson said.

"In terms of the equipment size one of the advantages I see is us being able to change mine design.

"Smaller trucks mean smaller roadways. That fundamentally changes the way we plan our mines."

Gavin Yeates Consulting principal Gavin Yeates believes the "swarm" would be the third phase of automation.

The first phase, he told the Robotics and Automation conference, was what miners were doing now and was about increasing consistency.

"The second phase allows us to redesign how we operate," Yeates said.

"We're not there yet.

"In the third phase we completely redesign the extraction process. There will be swarms of smaller vehicles and processing will be much closer to the mine face.

"That's where we need to be."

Auto-mate solutions & implementation manager Damien Williams disagrees with this swarm approach.

He believes a lack of interdependent equipment providers and standardised platforms will work against any attempt to create such a thing.

Williams also believes the system would have to be capable of independent thought.

"With a swarm concept it's about having interdependent systems working together," he said.

"The general logistics around working an orebody don't lend itself to that.

"We need the technology to support the swarm. We haven't had interdependent equipment providers."

Williams also believes that if a swarm is something miners are considering then they need to "chuck a lot of mining methodologies in the bin".

He pointed to an approach being touted by a consortium including the University of Western Australia and CSIRO that involves electrokinetics and in-situ leaching.

"That to me is more of a swarming style where you are getting at the maximum surface area of your orebody and getting many machines to go after it," Williams said.

"Swarming is about getting the most equipment to the ore rather than just applying thousands of very small mining trucks and hundreds of small excavators."

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