Driverless platoons set to cut cost of mineral haulage

By IM Staff
Published: Saturday, 26 August 2017

Automated trucks used on mine sites could soon offer cost savings on the roads, Rose Pengelly, IM Correspondent, discovers.

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, Baatar said.

But the company hopes to roll out the technology across its portfolio, as it looks to increase production volumes at minimal cost.

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.

Automotive companies like Volvo are working on driverless trucks
 to serve mining companies.
Darren Glanville, via Flickr 

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 logistics.

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 Australia. 

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.

Moving minerals

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 safety grounds.

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.

*Conversion made August 2017