By Michael Lewis, General Manager for Komatsu’s Technology Interoperability Group
If you ask a room full of mining professionals what they think of when they hear the phrase, “the future of mining,” chances are that most of them will immediately think of automation. They might even think of a specific product, such as Komatsu’s autonomous mining trucks that have recently made headlines for having moved well over 2 billion tons at sites across four continents. And we agree – mining automation, and the autonomous trucks that are helping to advance it, are critical to our industry’s future.
But automation in mining goes far beyond unmanned trucks. In fact, a complete spectrum of automated functions, equipment, and systems, currently exists. We look at the journey to full autonomy as having the following phases or levels:
Full Operator Responsibility
Operator is fully responsible for all functions
Provides feedback to improve task execution
Limited functions are controlled by system with operator able to resume control
Core functions automated, operator required to intercede as needed or for complex functions
Full Vehicle Responsibility
System able to execute core functions; intervention only required for complex functions
All functions automated, system able to manage significant environmental uncertainty or system failures without external intervention, performance exceeds manual in all scenarios
To maximize the opportunities and potential that exists with furthering automation in mining, Modular Mining’s parent company, Komatsu, recently created the Komatsu Technology Interoperability Center of Excellence; a group based in Tucson, Arizona focused entirely on driving product strategy and developing roadmaps for technology and automation. These in-development strategies and roadmaps aim to include the full range of mining equipment across all Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) within the Komatsu family, including both surface and underground equipment, and leverage the Original Technology Manufacturers (OTMs) including Modular Mining, MineWare, and Immersive Technologies.
The new Technology Interoperability group is focused on providing customers with a high-quality portfolio of state-of-the-art, integration-ready technologies and automated systems for all types of mining. The group’s vision centers on delivering innovative mine automation solutions that exceed customer expectations and provide a step change in safety and productivity. Recognizing that each mine has its own unique requirements and that customer operations span the various levels of being autonomous-ready, Komatsu is committed to developing solutions across the automation spectrum, including offerings specific to: truck spotting, assisted operation (including active blade control), autonomous drilling, and more.
With the acquisition of Joy Global in 2017, and with it, the P&H and Joy equipment lines, Komatsu now has the largest offering of system-wide solutions on the market. Our diverse groups of experts across the globe work with customers and suppliers, continually innovating to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving mining environment.
Important technologies for the future of mining automation
The pace of the technological evolution in the consumer world is driving mining’s evolution. We’re seeing faster adoption of automation technologies and enablers at mining operations worldwide. Automation capabilities in the consumer automotive industry, including the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that provide lane assistance and adaptive cruise control, are becoming standard systems on new cars. The underlying technologies of these automation capabilities, including controllers, sensors, algorithms, and artificial intelligence (AI), among others, are becoming more mature, thus opening opportunities for adoption into the mining industry.
Effective mining automation solutions require interoperability, as most mines have a mixed fleet of equipment. To support that customer need, Komatsu is leading the development of an ISO standard that will help make interoperability of automated equipment a reality. Together with Modular Mining’s OEM agnosticism and a focus on both safety and sustainability, we are confident these standards will support the delivery of improved solutions to meet customer and societal needs.
Many miners have started to digitalize their processes, but the greatest optimization occurs when we can collectively break down silos, share data, and integrate solutions. To further this effort, Modular Mining is working towards integration with third-party technology partners, which will allow the company’s IntelliMine solutions and third-party systems (such as mine planning and payload monitoring systems, among others) to seamlessly share data with one another. Access to this previously unavailable third-party data will enable Modular Mining to streamline overall operational efficiency by enhancing the existing decision-making algorithms within a site’s IntelliMine technologies.
The advances in industrial computing and algorithm developments also allow AI and machine learning to be pushed to the “edge” of onboard equipment, enabling automatic identification and corrective action for previously unsolvable production, maintenance, and safety related problems.
As the role of automation in the mining industry continues to increase, so too does the excitement from Komatsu’s Technology Interoperability group. In the past year, our teams have had the privilege of working with many customers and internal groups to develop a new strategy and roadmap that will help drive future offerings for our customers. We are excited to continue applying advanced technology, equipment, and services to help support the mining industry’s exciting and necessary evolution to meet the demands of society for the long haul.