Giant convoys or "platoons" of driverless trucks could soon
slash the cost of transporting large volumes of minerals by
road, making it more economical to produce low value industrial
minerals at significant distances from end markets.
Both haulage firms and some of the world’s
leading mining companies are investing heavily in automation as
part of a wider drive for efficiency amid falling prices for
commodities and rising labour costs.
To date, such innovation has largely been confined to mine
sites, but speaking at a recent conference in London, Bold
Baatar, CEO of the Energy and Minerals division at mining giant
Rio Tinto, said that mining companies need to take full
advantage of technologies such as data storage and predictive
analytics tools to fully optimise their logistics chains.
Rio Tinto Minerals, which produces borates, titanium
minerals and salt, expects to be one of the main beneficiaries
of Rio Tinto’s "Mine of the Future" initiative,
which uses data and smart technology to reduce manpower and
increase productivity at its operations.
So far, Rio has sought to introduce automation to the
company’s core portfolio of large, low-cost,
long-life assets, principally in its iron ore division, which
has been using driverless trucks in Australia for a decade,
But the company hopes to roll out the technology across its
portfolio, as it looks to increase production volumes at
For minerals like salt, which is sold in large volumes at
low prices, cost-cutting through automation is expected to have
a markedly positive impact on margins – particularly
if it can be applied beyond the mine site.
From mine to motorway
Transport analysts predict that driverless trucks could be
on the roads within the next decade, using "platooning"
– whereby several trucks driven by smart technology
rather than people follow a human-driven vehicle nose-to-tail
– as a safe and efficient way of enhancing
Without the need for the three-second gap that covers a
human driver's reaction time, the automated trucks can be
spaced just a few metres apart at a constant speed, presenting
a streamlined profile that can yield fuel savings of up to 15%,
reducing the final cost of the products being transported.
Small-scale platooning is already used in Europe, where
truck makers such as Scania, DAF, Iveco, MAN, Volvo and Daimler
are working with technology companies to accelerate commercial
adoption of autonomous trucks.
Similar efforts are being made in North America and Asia,
with obvious opportunities to roll out such technology in
infrastructurally-advanced mining centres like Canada and
Consultants McKinsey & Co. published a report in
September 2016 predicting that by 2025, a third of new premium
trucks manufactured in Western countries will have Level 4
automation, allowing them to be self-driven on highways.
A significant proportion of these are likely to be used for
haulage in the mining sector.
While the application of automated haulage in the mining
industry could be wide-ranging, geographically it is likely to
be limited to countries with modern, well maintained roads,
such as Australia.
Driverless trucks could have a significant impact in the
Australian construction industry, for example, where trucking
construction sand to Sydney can cost anywhere from A$8/tonne
($6.30/tonne) from mines close to the city, to more than
A$30/tonne from deposits more than 100km away.
Similarly, the profitability of Australian mineral sands
operations is partly determined by their distance from
processing plants and ports.
This is an issue which affected Australia’s
Iluka Resources Ltd, a leading global supplier of titanium
mineral sands, when the South Australian Port of Thevenard was
shut suddenly in June this year due to safety concerns. The
closure has left the company facing the prospect of trucking
its material hundreds of kilometres to other ports until
Thevenard reopens in October.
Understandably, mining companies are broadly in favour of
increasing automation, although unions representing mine
workers have indicated that they are ready to oppose moves in
this direction, on grounds of safety.
Mining and technology company executives however stress that
such changes are probably inevitable.
"Data is becoming increasingly important to the mining
sector," Dean Smith, head of digital transformation for the
energy and natural resources division of US technology firm,
Cisco Systems Inc., told delegates at the London event.
"The mining sector needs to broaden its thinking to adopt
agnostic technology developed for other industries," he said,
stressing that "connectivity with customers and competition can
speed up decision-making" and, ultimately, boost profits.