By Carly Leonida, European Editor

On June 10, mine fleet management specialist, Wenco International Mining Systems, and U.K.-based autonomous technology provider Oxbotica, announced they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to develop an open autonomy solution for mining.

Wenco is a wholly owned subsidiary company of Hitachi Construction Machinery (HCM), and the announcement builds upon the two companies’ vision of an open autonomous ecosystem for mine sites that was first announced by HCM at the May 2019 CIM conference in Montreal, Canada.

Oxbotica was founded in 2014 at the University of Oxford to develop an autonomy software platform that enables faster deployment of industry-specific autonomy applications. Its mining solutions combine advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and computer vision to change the way vehicle fleets operate.

The companies said the open autonomy solution they are working on will provide customers flexibility and efficiency in the deployment of autonomous mining equipment, allowing them to operate any open standard-based vehicle and integrate it into their existing fleet.

This approach avoids vendor lock-in and offers customers the freedom to choose preferred technologies, independent of their primary industrial systems. Furthermore, it enables highly skilled autonomy suppliers that may be new to mining to integrate with customers’ existing operations while backed by a proven expert in the industry.

“We are very excited to be working with Oxbotica,” Wenco CEO Andrew Pyne said. “Autonomy version 1.0 is well understood for its benefits but also its limitations, and a number of mining companies are now looking at how to overcome those.

“For a period of time, Caterpillar and Komatsu were calling the shots on what autonomy meant in terms of commitment to them as a supplier. Mining companies wanted the benefits of autonomy, but they also wanted more flexibility, so it was really a catch 22.

“The catalyst for us, and why we started to invest in and champion open autonomy in 2017, was one of our large customers challenged us. Their CIO said that if we didn’t get active in trying different approaches, we would be displaced because they had to go with a full stack approach. They had a mixed fleet at the time.

“That open approach became very much part of our company strategy, and also HCM’s approach as we recognize the benefits this approach will provide to our customers. HCM is primarily an excavator company so, if a mine was going autonomous with Komatsu or Caterpillar, that really diminished the opportunity for excavator sales. It made sense for Wenco and it allowed us to link our objective to HCM’s.”

Open opportunity

According to statistics from GlobeData’s Mining Intelligence Center, the number of autonomous haul trucks globally is expected to grow by more than 300% by 2023.

“One of the main reasons we only have 2% autonomous trucks in mining at the moment is because there are barriers that a lot of mining companies can’t get past and they’re frustrated,” Pyne said.

For a system to be classed as “open,” it must meet four key elements: be fully defined so different parties can work within the same framework, be stable, published and unable to be controlled by a single party.

According to Wenco, technologies that use open standards to facilitate visibility and control of systems without direct human interaction, rely heavily on open standards such as ANSI/ISA-95 and those advanced by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These standards are fully defined, published, and voted on by industry experts from suppliers and mining companies — ensuring an absence of bias.

Pyne reached out to Oxbotica in late 2019 following a recommendation from an industry contact.

“We approached Oxbotica because we saw a technical advantage over what was currently in place, particularly around obstacle detection in autonomous haulage systems (AHSs),” he said. “One of the limitations of first-generation AHSs is obstacle detection and safety; false detections can have a massive impact on mine productivity.

“We researched who was doing what and we identified Oxbotica as a best-of-breed in this space. We knew that if we were going to introduce something that was next generation then we had to show a demonstrable technical advantage to mining customers, otherwise why would they take that risk?”

The deal with Oxbotica made sense; the company could provide a critical portion of technology that is needed to create a full autonomy solution and, most importantly, its systems are truly interoperable.

Creating component-based systems

Pyne explained how the system will work: “When we were originally providing our FMS layer to the Hitachi system, we did it in an uncoupled way using a defined set of protocols and messaging rules,” he said. “We created an interface layer that meant that if Hitachi wanted to sell their trucks to a mine site using a different FMS, they could do so with no trouble.

“So, what we did is take that principal and add more interoperable layers. Oxbotica is now providing the onboard autonomous layer, and also the obstacle detection technology.”

One of Wenco’s executives has been convening an industry working group to come up with the ISO 23725 standard over the past few years. That standard will be a published set of protocols that will allow any company that wants to provide layers of technology as part of an autonomous solution to do so. It will allow their systems to work seamlessly with any truck or FMS.

In addition to Oxbotica, Wenco has proven this approach with another company, one that was founded by ex-Caterpillar employees and is based out of Silicon Valley in the U.S.

“We’ve identified a number of companies that we’ve categorized and are now in the testing phase with a few of these,” Pyne said. “We need to know that their technologies meet the benchmark and that they have a cultural alignment with us in terms of interoperability, because we are trying to be a catalyst toward delivery a sustainable change within the industry, and we won’t achieve that if we try to advantage ourselves or our technology.”

“We’ve chosen to work with Oxbotica, but there are others that are taking advantage of the same layered approach. It allows the customer to choose the systems they want. If they want to work with us, we can provide all of the layers necessary for an AHS, but if they want to pull out a piece and put in something else, that’s fine, too.”

Time for change

For mines that are already operational, this approach could offer them to chance to integrate an AHS into a mixed-brand fleet of trucks and keep their current FMS, rather than switching out trucks or an FMS for those that are compatible with the AHS they want to use.

It’s hard to quantify what this could mean in terms of financial savings for mining companies as every scenario is different. However, it’s reasonable to assume that the cost reduction for an overall solution will be significant.

“We’re talking to a couple of mining companies about our approach and working with Oxbotica,” Pyne said. “They both have mixed fleets, and one of them was told by another player that, currently, if they want to implement an AHS, they will need to spend a billion US dollars on new trucks.

“Just as significant a question to ask though is how much risk is reduced? Because if those systems have been in place for a number of years and they’re very well defined… if that mine switches to an autonomous system, it’s going through a massive change management program already. But if it then has to replace trucks and its operational systems including FMS, and then train their people on a whole new set of systems… It’s a massive risk.”

The open autonomy approach will effectively level the playing field in today’s AHS market. And, more importantly, give power back to the consumer.

“We are also hoping to see a drive-by-wire standard interface introduced across the industry,” Pyne said. “So that, rather than trucks being hacked into by third party companies to install those technologies, potentially invalidating OEM warranties, that the systems are fitted by the OEM from the factory. They know their trucks better than anybody.

“When the Roy Hill autonomous project is stood up as an example of a new innovative approach to AHS, things will start to change. The mining industry is at a tipping point.”