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Mining Matters: Achieving a mature, value-driven autonomous program

The future of mining is increasingly autonomous. While more mining companies are embracing this trend, many are working with different levels of autonomous programs. Building an autonomous program requires attention to detail and a wide range of technology incorporating command and control, safety and physical systems. As a sensor, software and autonomous solutions leader, Hexagon is helping customers to assess the functional maturity of the complex systems common to mines.

NJ: Thanks for tuning in. Hi, I’m Neville Judd from HxGN Radio.

Mines embracing autonomy must implement a wide range of technology from command and control to safety systems. With us to discuss Hexagon’s approach to a successful autonomous programme, our Mining division CTO, Rob Daw, and VP of Autonomous, Andrew Crose. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us today.

RD: Thanks for having us, Nev.

AC: Yeah, Good Morning.

NJ: You bet. So, Rob, let’s start with you. Hexagon promotes an Autonomous Connected Ecosystems strategy otherwise known as ACE. What does that mean for mining and how does this model accelerate innovation in the industry?

RD: Yeah, I think typically in the mining industry, we’re very focused on safety, cost, productivities, these sorts of areas. And traditionally we’ve been drawn to the tools that we have at hand. We’ve got mine planning for sort of strategic and/or tactical planning or schedules, as well as operational technologies such as FMS to really help drive those efficiencies. But now the industry has begun the adoption of more autonomous vehicles and looking at embracing data and that hyperconnectivity of data, really starting to gain more value from analytics. But I guess my question has been, what happens when we tie all of that together, the efficiency and the automation? And this is where we really start to see the true autonomy side of things.
I really like the example of the technologies that we love the most are really the ones that we don’t have to think about. So, they’re the ones that think for us.

Let me give you an example. The technologies we love the most are the ones we don’t have to think about. They’re the ones that think for us. Spotify is a great example. It learns the music we like to create playlists from. And it’s eerily accurate. But Spotify is doing so much more than just logging what we are listening to. It’s actually looking through that log and leveraging the information out of there and starting to create those playlists for us autonomously. So, this is why we’re focused in the Mining division on autonomy and from a Hexagon level, it really is the ultimate form of putting our data to work, which leads to the greatest gains of efficiency, quality, productivity. And they’re the outcomes that we hear every day from our clients out in the industry itself.

I guess, where does that lead to, then, with regards to innovation? I think it unboxes those traditionally disparate silos of the value chain and will ultimately enable us to see areas of improvement that we’ve never been able to see before. And honestly, who knows what that sort of innovation will unlock going forward into the future?

NJ: That’s an interesting analogy. I’d never thought about it that way, from the Spotify point of view, but it’s an interesting way of looking at it. If we look at what a typical road map can be like for an autonomous programme, Andrew, how do you think companies can ensure that they’re achieving lasting value?

AC: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Nev. I think to continue with that analogy, if you look at the types of mines in the world out there, they’re as complex and diverse as people’s musical tastes. You might have a large brown field that has the complexity and nuances of a giant symphony to a small quarry that has the complexity of a three-piece power punk trio. In that, this concept of an autonomous connected ecosystem allows that footprint of technology to be adapted and really tailored to what that unique mine’s needs are and how to have the best ROI from an autonomous programme, whether it’s the classic legacy systems of the ultra-class dumpers to the newer technologies that are enabling these small dumper-style trucks to even some of the small cab-less styles we’re seeing. So, we definitely see this, this roadmap being a tailored roadmap, but leveraging the technologies of an autonomous connected ecosystem to learn and fit to that exact operation for the best long-term value and understand these operations change over time so that as these operations evolve, whether it’s a greenfield that just starts an overburden stripping operation that’s later going to have 150 haul trucks, that changes and evolves as the operation changes. No longer do you have to just say we’re going autonomous with a legacy system. We need to find an isolated pit or a new greenfield mine to try it out at. But we can truly look at any operation.

NJ: So, how does the integration of Hexagon’s solutions create the ROI that Andrew mentioned, Rob, and how does Hexagon do this better, in your opinion?

RD: Yeah, I think we probably—going back to the same Spotify analogy, ultimately creating almost our own playlist. When we look at some of the technologies from the mine planning space all the way through to the operational technology stacks and safety stacks that really do enable autonomy, what we’re starting to see is all of these different areas of convergence within the datasets, within the actual hardware, and within the way that we want to present that back to our clients out in the field. And so, as we work our way through that, you can really see these different areas that the mining value chain is improving from.

I guess on that point, I think the fortunate part is within the Hexagon framework is we have so much of this technology at our disposal. By bringing it all together we’re really starting to see where we can improve the playlists for our clients and continue to tailor for each one of those operations, as Andrew said. And it’s something that is dynamic and evolving. And as we find out, every operation has its nuances and it’s how do we continue to tailor that playlist for each one of our clients going forward?

NJ: So, with great opportunities, obviously, there can be challenges and I’m wondering, Andrew, about some of the common pitfalls that mines can run into when they implement autonomous programmes. What have you seen?

AC: Yes, I still think people and the community and the licence to operate is the greatest pitfall that mines face, whether it’s an autonomous programme or any automation or technology initiative. You know, bringing the employees and the staff and the operators and the drivers along in the journey, ensuring that the community sees this as a benefit to them and as they’re part of the solution to mine safer, to mine more efficient, that it not just benefits the mine and the bottom line of mine, but it enables the operations to be safer and have that zero-harm belief ingrained in how we do things. And then from a wider community perspective that they’re enabled and brought along as part of the journey, whether that’s upskilling the local community, as we have done on supporting the autonomous technology, or building initiatives around community engagement, involvement, education, training, health care, that holistic concept of making sure that people are not forgotten when you automate.

RD: I think on top of that as well, Andrew, some of the things I’ve seen is why are clients wanting to put in autonomous solutions, and identifying those quick wins, those goals of what they’re really trying to achieve, inefficiencies or within safety, and taking off on those KPIs as they deliver? I think we’ve got to be cautious that we don’t just put in autonomous solutions for the sake of them. Every operation is different. Every operation has different drivers and KPIs that it needs to meet. And I don’t think it is a one size fits all. And so, we need to make sure that we identify why each one of these is wanting to implement those solutions upfront and then work through that process as we go throughout the implementation. Otherwise, the economics and as Andrew mentioned some of the social impacts that we identified can be missed, and then it’s a no start from the very beginning.

NJ: So final question for both of you, and I think you’ve both in various ways alluded to part of the answer here. But I’m wondering, what do you consider to be the most important aspects that mines should consider when they’re developing an autonomous ecosystem? And also, how do you see autonomous projects evolving in the future? And, Rob, if we could start with you.

RD: Yeah, I think autonomous projects into the future are going to become obviously more commonplace. And I think the beauty of that, as they become more commonplace, we learn more as an industry and we are able to evolve and become better. And that’s through both looking at the processes, having educated and trained and skilled people, as well as evolving the technology. And we’ve got to make sure that we do that fast enough to keep up with the changes or the potential improvements that we can get in operations for autonomous solutions. So, where do we go from today? We really need to identify what are our KPIs? What are our goals that we’re trying to achieve with autonomous? And, are there particular tools or ways that we can actually even derive some of this value or understand some of these areas of concern going forward? I’m not sure, Andrew, if you’ve got any experience on that front.

AC: Yeah, I see, definitely when I think about this question and I think about the future, I kind of want to also look back in the past and where we’ve come from as an autonomous mining industry. And the aspects that you used to have to consider were very slim, right, is are you ready to buy new trucks? Are you a greenfield or a new isolated pit? Are you going to operate with 15 or less trucks? And can they be one of these handful select three or four models? That’s where we came from. That’s the legacy of the existing systems in the market. The future is going to be much more diverse.

And in that regard, we work with partners across whether the mine projects team or some select consultants that we’ve identified that have deep expertise in this, and they’ve expanded that solution set of things that need to be considered. You know, no longer are you limited to a certain or a handful of truck makes and models. No longer do you need to just consider it for a new pit or greenfield. No longer should you consider it just for small fleets. The amount of potential autonomous sizes and configurations and value propositions have changed considerably, and we use tools, even like Hexagon’s economic evaluator, to look at all of these factors and really determine on the multiple things that we can automate within a mine which would have the biggest bang for the buck, which would have the largest return on investment.
And as we forecast this out and we look to the future, we actually see a world where we’re able to automate and effectively remove almost all, if not all, people from the mining areas. You know, drones, for survey, obviously autonomous haulage, autonomous shovels or tele-remote shovels, autonomous auxiliary equipment like water trucks, graders, etc. We really want to see the full breadth of autonomy into the mine while also understanding with the sheer breadth and depth of autonomous programmes that could be initiated, which one should be prioritised based on the highest ROI.

NJ: Gentlemen, great insight into a fascinating topic. I’m already envisaging the Spotify audio soundtrack for this podcast. I really appreciate you joining us today. Thank you, Rob and Andrew.

RD: Thanks, Nev. Appreciate it.

NJ: You bet.

AC: Thank you, Nev. Cheers.

NJ: Yep, you bet.

A big thank you to our guests, Rob and Andrew. For more information about today’s topic, visit hexagonmining.com. And to listen to additional episodes or learn more, visit hxgnspotlight.com. Thanks for tuning in.