“A big aspect is safety, because there are fewer people operating around big machines. There’s a huge health and safety aspect to autonomous haulage.”
Key to the success of autonomous vehicles in the mining sector is pervasive, dependable and high performance wireless broadband. Mining companies are increasingly seeking to roll out their own LTE networks to service the mine and the vehicles operating within it, especially when remote from the Telstra network, says Wienert.
“The mining companies will generally over-build their own networks with LTE. These networks are production-class and they do this to meet the very exacting performance requirements they have for their systems; requirements that often need them to have control over the capability and capacity of the network,” Ross says.
“There is lots of intelligence built into the network in terms of optimisation, operational simplification and self-healing.”
“A big aspect is safety, because there are fewer people operating around big machines. There’s a huge health and safety aspect to autonomous haulage.”Jason Wienart, OEM Partner Manager, Telstra Mining Services
LTE networks are not only used for vehicle control, Ross says. Autonomous trucks and trains can be thought of as sensors on wheels, tracks or rails generating massive troves of data that can describe the state of a mining operation too (e.g. LiDAR for terrain mapping). With LTE, the data can also be used for machine to machine interactions, but also person to person and person to system communications.
“It’s about the data and using it to improve decision making in a mining environment, or enabling staff to operate more productively and safer in the field.”
Although autonomous haulage means fewer drivers and manual workers, it’s also driving the upskilling of the people who remain on site. STEM skills are always highly sought after by mining companies, but it takes a very specific skill set to design the autonomous routing, service and maintenance at the mining site.
Advanced skills in radio, networking, sensoring and robotics will be staples of the autonomous mining era.
Autonomy also involves reducing the costs associated with mining, as well as the tyranny of distance. “There’s a strong business case driver for mining in Australia, especially in the west,” Wienert says.
“The mines are remote and it can be costly to fly people in and out, but with autonomy those costs can be reduced. Similarly, there are significant safety benefits from autonomy when looking at underground mining.”
For mining companies, Telstra’s role in autonomy is important, as a supplier of the underlying communications networks that connect and enable the ‘big iron’ of an autonomous fleet. Ross says that Telstra has much more to offer industry than just being the provider of carriage, cloud or consumer mobile services.
“Telstra’s foray into verticals with groups like Telstra Mining Services provides a unique ability for us to work closely with industry,” he says. “We have the skills and expertise to get inside a business to solve industrial challenges, transforming how devices and systems can interact on-site.
“It’s not just about connectivity to the HQ or Internet anymore.”
The revolution in Australian mining is truly here. Autonomous haulage, data and analytics are playing a critical role in the efficient operation of mines in Australia’s remote areas.