The barriers to introducing fully automated vehicles on public roads are high. Self-driving vehicles will need to safely navigate near infinite scenarios “in the wild,” and meet high regulatory hurdles before full deployment is possible.
Mining sites offer an almost opposite environment — highly structured and physically remote, with pre-defined, repeatable tasks. The mining industry is using this structural advantage to deploy self-driving vehicles and robotic machinery ahead of the technology’s wider deployment.
Mining companies are highly sensitive to operating costs, and automation is one lever to improve margins. Even small efficiencies gained from automation can result in exponential savings when applied across global mining operations.
International mining companies and machine OEMs, including Caterpillar and Komatsu, are leading the industry’s automation push. Startups have emerged to provide the sensors and platforms that enable newly autonomous vehicle fleets.
We used CB Insights data to unearth startups enabling mining automation and analyze mining company and OEM activity in the space. This is the first in a series of three posts examining technology trends reshaping the mining industry.
OEMs Deploy Autonomous mining trucks
Moving rocks from one place to another has been an early target for automation. The large, ore-carting vehicles ubiquitous at surface mining sites are quickly being automated.
OEMs are doing much of the heavy lifting to develop the technology. Caterpillar first deployed autonomous mining trucks in 2013. The company’s Cat® Command platform implements autonomous hauling solutions for truck fleets.
Komatsu, another heavy equipment provider, makes hauling trucks for surface mining with autonomous capabilities. In 2016, the company unveiled a prototype cab-less mining truck. Widespread use of the prototype would be a big step forward from today’s automated vehicles, which are either retrofitted or built with self-driving capabilities on existing configurations.
All major mining companies use automation solutions offered by the machine OEMs. BHP Billiton, the second-largest mining company by revenue, deploys a range of autonomous vehicles, including underground trains and surface mine trucks.
The company sees autonomous equipment as the most mature emerging technology it currently uses.
BHP Investor Presentation, May 2017
Rio Tinto also has mature autonomous capabilities, with about 20% of its fleet of 400 haul trucks in the Pilbara region of Australia retrofitted with autonomous capabilities. The company estimates that each autonomous truck operated an average of 700 hours more than conventional trucks in 2017, with 15% lower unit costs.
STARTUPS Provide Sensors and Software
Startups have moved into the automation space to support OEMs and mining companies. No startup has attempted to create an autonomous mining truck, instead entering the space through the LIDAR sensors and software systems that enable automation.
LIDAR: Companies in this category provide LIDAR sensors for self-driving vehicles. LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a technology that uses light to sense objects.
Integrated Platform: These companies go a step further than sensor companies, offering sensors, automation software, and fleet management solutions....MUCH MORE