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Are we there yet? The road to automation and autonomous mining

Automation and autonomous solutions are frequently cited as being integral to smart mines of the future. Recently, mining media have even speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic may actually accelerate autonomous mining. Is the industry ready for this transformational leap or are there other directions to empower a remote workforce?  

NJ: Automation and autonomous solutions are frequently cited as being integral to smart mines of the future. Recently mining media even speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic, may actually accelerate autonomous mining. Is the industry ready for this transformational leap? Or are there other directions to empower a remote work force. In our continuing thought leader series, Hexagon Mining division CTO Rob Daw, is joined by portfolio managers Fabien Kritter and Larry Estep to discuss how Hexagon is connecting autonomous ecosystems. Thanks for tuning in. Hi, I’m Neville Judd from Hexagon Radio. Autonomous mining is often cited as a destination as to which the industry is heading. Yet the magnitude of investment and the social licence to operate, to name but two reasons, mean that fully autonomous mining remains elusive. Joining me to discuss Hexagon’s autonomous connected ecosystem strategy are Hexagon Mining’s division CTO Rob Daw and portfolio managers Fabien Kritter and Larry Estep. Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today.

RD: Thanks for having us, Nev.

LE: Thank you.

NJ: Welcome. So, the words autonomous and autonomy can mean different things to different people. Just for some context, Rob, explain what those words mean to Hexagon when it comes to mining.

RD: I think that’s a really good point Nev. I think we have traditionally thrown a lot of those words around, autonomy, autonomous, automation in the mining environment and I think ninety-nine percent of the time we kind of relate it back to AHS or ADS or autonomous haulage or autonomous drills and we have associated it in that area. There are two elements that we really look at from a Hexagon Mining point of view. One is definitely focused at autonomous and autonomy around how do we empower our drills, how do we empower our haulage fleet and other aspects of our mining operation to operate without end users behind the wheel? But there’s also that other aspect of automation which is definitely about how we connect the full ecosystem. So, how do we take this information from the field, how do we take our planning solutions, how do we take our safety operations, everything else and automate processes in the background to streamline our end user capabilities in the mining industry? So, I think there is probably a few definitions out there. I think the two key areas we focus on in Hexagon Mining are around obviously autonomous, in terms of the vehicles, and then the autonomy, which we really focus on the data, the workflow, and making sure that the decision process becomes more automated for our end users.

NJ: So, Fabien, Larry, you oversee the autonomous and operations portfolios, respectively. I’ll start with you, Fabien. What are the more obvious benefits Hexagon customers see from implementing semi-autonomous solutions, such as vehicle intervention and operator assist and reverse assist?

FK: Very good question, Nev. I think that’s first of all a stepping-stone toward autonomy and not all customers will go to autonomy or have actually the operation which is adapted for autonomy. And they may have also other problems and they do not want to do a big leap towards autonomy, which is also a very radical change in their whole process and their way of mining and they want to actually solve certain problems they may have on the safety aspect or on a productivity aspect and vehicle intervention or reverse assist are actually addressing those needs. Vehicle intervention is more on the safety aspect but has also an impact on the production, of course, and reverse assist is actually mainly targeting the productivity but also has an impact on the safety aspect.

NJ: And what about you, Larry? In your portfolio, where do customers see the benefits?

LE: Fabien mentioned safety and productivity and I like to think about process control, right? So, the idea that by enabling repeatable, replicable processes – and you can do that autonomous, fully autonomy, semi-autonomy, or just through operational controls – but repeatability process control is a significant benefit of autonomous solutions. If you can find the optimal way to do things whether that be in a load haul cycle or drilling and you can ensure that you’re controlling that process in a way that makes it repeatable, you can optimise whatever that workflow might be and Hexagon systems allow us to do that in a staged, phased manner where you start with data, you start with integration, you start with workflow processes and then move to starting to automate some of those workflows. So, I think it’s a perfect solution. And another thing that people don’t often talk about in autonomous solutions is operator health. In my experience, as we all know in mining there are some activities that are detrimental to operators’ health. I’m not just talking about safety. I’m talking about wear and tear on the human body. If you can find ways to extract those activities that operator are exposed to that are detrimental to the operator, you’re going to find that your operators are happier, healthier, they enjoy coming to work more and I think something that’s often overlooked is looking at the operator and the ability to keep your operators safe, not only safe but also healthy.

NJ: So, Rob Hexagon’s mission is to enable autonomous connected ecosystems, sometimes referred to by its acronym ACE, what does that mean for mining and how much of your roadmap decisions as the CTO influenced by the ACE mission?

RD: So, to have an autonomously connected ecosystem means how do we make sense of all the information, all the sensors, all the data capture points that we have out in the field back to our end users? How do we connect that information, that data, to be able to make smart decisions in different parts of our business? So, in mining it’s obviously how do we make smarter decisions for our mining operations? How do we dispatch vehicles effectively? How do we make sure we’re mining the right areas at the right time? So, I think when we actually break down what ACE is and where we’re heading with that connected ecosystem, realistically that’s where the power of where Hexagon Mining comes in, right? We’ve got our mine planning space. We’ve got our operations. We’ve got our MineProtect, or our safety portfolios and now what we’re actually doing more and more is connecting all of that information and all of that data together, which is now starting to give us a holistic picture on what’s happening in our operation. A lot more situational awareness. So, I think as we connect more and more of that information our clients are getting the benefits of really understanding what is happening in their operation right now and we’re feeding the right information to the right people at the right time, and I think it’s really enabling our clients to transition from that proactive “Hey yeah, I’m going to have a morning meeting and what did we do in the last twenty-four hours?” to that more proactive capability of saying “Well, I’m seeing this trend guys. How do we actually rectify this now” instead of we could’ve and we should’ve, that sort of mentality?

NJ: Well, that eases nicely into our next question which is about customers and it’s an open question but I think Larry if I can get your response first and then Fabien and then Rob. Each of you spends a lot of time with customers at mine sites around the world. Explain some of the obstacles to going fully autonomous. What do you hear from them Larry?

LE: Outside the obvious ones of cost and such. I think organisational change management has become a big obstacle, right? The idea of shifting to fully autonomous or semi-autonomous operations in a mine is a big change for the way that we’ve done mining for hundreds of years and that has become a significant obstacle. Not only for the individuals that are responsible for executing the systems but for the people that are left over that are not impacted by autonomous. There is a significant amount of people in the mine that do not have a role in autonomous mining. Whether that be a mechanic or a geo or a planner. So, moving the entire organisation, if you think about autonomous truck fleet, that’s one small piece of a mining operation. You’ve got a very large organisation that has to change the way that they do their work in order to accommodate a shift to autonomous mining and I think that organisational change management is a huge obstacle for mines to be able to fully embrace an autonomous ecosystem.

RD: I think where you’re heading there and one of the terms that gets thrown around a little bit in the industry today is that social licencing. So, how do we actually take our workforce on the journey of adoption of autonomy? And different parts of the world definitely have different implications from a location in somewhere like APAC where we have predominantly FIFO (fly in, fly out) type mentality to some of the other parts in the world in let’s say Africa where it’s a very localised workforce. So that mentality of actually how you introduce and adopt autonomous definitely has interesting challenges for other parts of the world and I think that’s something that we’ve really got to overcome as a hurdle for successful adoption on a large scale for autonomous.

NJ: So, again an open question, but Rob, we’ll start with you and Fabien and Larry, feel free to jump in on this. Let’s say, in a perfect world, mines had all the money they needed to invest in fully autonomous operations and immediately these mines are safer and more productive. What importance do people and trust have in a scenario like that?

RD: Still a significant amount. If you go back to what that definition of autonomous and autonomy really is, we are still defining where we need to take our equipment, like source destination and how they get there. That’s not being automatically calculated. So, yeah, I think dispatch becomes such a significant piece of that puzzle and how we actually achieve the right results. I think your geologists, your tech services groups in general, really need to have a much better understanding of exactly what’s happening operationally and bridge that gap and break that silo down even more so there is that constant flow and constant reconciliation feedback between these two groups, so that the autonomous project and solutions can actually work a lot more seamlessly than possibly they are today. I think also, it’s going to change the dynamic in terms of the skill sets that we’re going to see in a mining operation. So, we still need to service, we still need to maintain, we still need to fix these types of solutions. But what we see is that a change, now auto-electricians and people who are more skilled in servers and technology solutions and IT and infrastructure, are going to have a higher dependency in a mining operation. So, I honestly don’t think there is going to be a significant shift in the cost of those sorts of people on site to be able to support these solutions. It’s just a different way to look at it and I think people who are currently in operations are very well-placed to be able to support these types of solutions and we see that as a trend in a lot of operations that have adopted autonomous solutions already, is that they’ve been able to repurpose people into specific roles and have been able to pick these types of roles up significantly quicker because they have that background.

LE: Yeah. You know, Rob makes a great point and I would like to add, you know if we think about autonomous mining and the concept of autonomous mining, people and autonomous machines will always need to interact, right? Mines are still going to require robust operational controls that impact their people that they will need to drive adherence to in order to control that environment. This will ensure safe mining; it will ensure that the autonomous systems are in a condition that they’re able to meet their production plans and their intended goals. People and your trust in people will always remain key and I think that the key point there is that you are always going to have people and autonomous machines interacting, whether that be “sparkies” or mechanics or planners or all of those other people that you need to keep the mine running, so it’s critical that you invest in your people and trust them.

FK: I think you also have actually, as you said, Larry and Rob, so the skill set will change, the job environment will change, as well. Now, if you are actually operating a mine you will have less people at the mine and much more people close to a city centre where you have your operation control. Now you can allow to have a part-time job. What about actually a mother who just came back, if she had to go to a mine and be full-time on the job when she’s operating from an office, actually dispatching vehicles in the mine which are far away, then she can work part-time. People are afraid or think that they will lose their position or lose their job if there is autonomy. I think we have seen in the world, operations that have made this shift. They have not actually reduced their workforce. They have changed the workforce. It’s opened new opportunities for the people.

NJ: So, final question guys. Our interview title asks: are we there yet? When it comes to Hexagon’s autonomously connected ecosystem strategy, are we? Rob, what do you think?

RD: I don’t think any organisation in the world is there yet. I think we’ve definitely got a strong case to be made in terms of what we’re providing our clients. I think if you look at the technology stacks that we have within our grasp within Hexagon Mining, from mine planning, mine operations, mine safety (MineProtect), mine autonomous programme and enterprise platforms behind that. We are connecting the dots very rapidly and we are connecting these solutions and we’re connecting those sensors from the field back to the office for our clients and making sense of our data more and more and giving them insights that they’ve never been able to have. So, are we there yet? No, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to define what yet is. I think that’s a constant goal post that’s going to continue to move over time as technology evolves, there’s going to be new goals and new standards that we always want to strive for. But I think where Hexagon is today, we’re really well positioned to take advantage of the technologies that we have had and I think our clients are really able to maximise the information and value out of our solutions today.

NJ: And Larry and Fabien, as portfolio managers, any final thoughts on the strategy and where we’re at?

LE: Yeah, I think we have a solid vision, we have a solid strategy, I echo Rob’s point: “are we there yet?” that’s going to be an evolving, as Rob said, set of goal posts because as technology evolves and we see new capabilities coming, that’s always going to be evolving. I think we have a solid strategy, a solid foundation, we are developing and implementing components of that journey and it is a journey and I’m excited about being a part of it and look forward to what the future is going to hold for autonomous mining.

NJ: Yeah, it does sound like a very exciting future. Any final thoughts Fabien?

FK: As I’ve already mentioned, it will go by step-by-step in a continuous evolution and it will take some time and will improve over time as we have more connections.

NJ: I feel like it would be remiss of me if I didn’t acknowledge Fabien’s daughter in the room, we’re all adapting to COVID-19. What’s your daughter’s name, Fabien?

FK: Thank you Nev, Yuzuna, it’s a Japanese name.

NJ: That’s a beautiful name. Well I do appreciate you all joining me today, Yuzuna, too, appreciate your insight and thanks again for your time, gentleman. A big thank you to our guests, Rob, Larry, Fabien and Yuzuna. For more information about today’s topic, visit hexagonmining.com. To listen to additional episodes or learn more, visit hxgnspotlight.com. Thanks for tuning in.