Codelco’s underground copper mine, El Teniente, historically has used teleremote-controlled equipment with autonomous capabilities, including machines made by Sandvik. The recent sale of AutoMine, loaders and trucks for the Andes Norte block caps the long relationship between the miner and OEM. (Photo: Codelco)

As proven automation solutions offer efficiency, and as proven teleremote control solutions offer improved safety, the barriers to adoption are crumbling

By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer

Advanced automation and teleremote control solutions are not just for the majors anymore. The solutions gaining market share are field-proven to deliver safety and efficiency benefits, and can be deployed faster than predecessor solutions, making them more attractive to more customers.

In hindsight, the majors will get much credit for boldly partnering with original equipment manufacturers (OEM) on the necessary initial field trials, the risky co-development projects, and the gutsy early adoptions. Those first steps forged the path for everyone else. Recent headlines hint where that path leads.

Leading the Shift to Digitization

Sandvik passed a major milestone when it sold AutoMine to El Teniente for the Andes Norte and other blocks. The sale was one of two announced in December and January that, combined, were valued at $43 million. Its price tag, history and scope makes it one of the most illustrative underground automation solution adoption partnership contracts in recent history.

“Andes Norte is the biggest automation order in the history of Sandvik, indicating the shift in the industry toward automation equipment in main production areas,” said Tal Zarum, head of automation operations, South America, Sandvik. “Codelco and Sandvik are leading the race to digitization in mass mining operations.”

The order grew organically from the enduring partnership between the miner and supplier to incrementally digitize and automate operations at the mine. Over the years, the miner has repeatedly tapped the supplier for AutoMine solutions, equipment and support on the path to full automation.

AutoMine was first installed at El Teniente in 2004 in the Diablo Regimiento and Panel 2 blocks. “Sandvik has a long history with El Teniente since the early millennium, when the first AutoMine system was installed outside of Finland,” Zarum said.

Other solutions deployed to the mine over the years included AutoMine Manual Production Management, and Automine MultiLine. The systems allowed the miner to plan to go deeper and “to extract more complex deposits,” Zarum said.

Those plans advanced to the next phase when, in Q1 2021, Sandvik reported it sold AutoMine Fleet for the Pacifico Superior and Pilar Norte GTI blocks at El Teniente.

The solution is a fleet management system with automated functionalities, to include automated traffic management. It enabled the autonomous operations of a new fleet of Sandvik LH517i and LH621i loaders. Commissioning occurred in H2 2021.

At that point, the AutoMine system in the GTI and Diablo Regimiento blocks supported remote control of semiautonomous loaders, “allowing the mine to access areas that have otherwise been deemed inaccessible” for safety reasons “due to geological challenges,” Zarum said.

The remote control center is 24 km away in Rancagua, “allowing the mine to operate a fleet of loaders without having an operator in the mine,” he said. The operators work in an office setting.

With the most recent order, those capabilities and others will be implemented at future production areas. The AutoMine load-and-haul system for Andes Norte came with a price tag of $27 million. The block will also deploy AutoMine Fleet, Toro TH663i trucks and LH514 loaders. The contract runs through 2027, at which point AutoMine Fleet could support up to 32 machines.

The order included upgrades to existing machines in the blocks already using AutoMine.

“At GTI and Diablo Regimento production areas, the manual loaders have been upgraded with newer and more intelligent retrofit kits that add capabilities such as data-based systems and information management, together with autonomous capabilities,” Zarum said. “That is combined with a stronger more intelligent navigation system that can handle multiple condition changes in the mining environment.”

The new Sandvik Toro TH663i trucks and LH514 loaders for the Andes Norte block perfectly fit the automation path forged by the miner and supplier. “The plans for the current life cycle operations and future production areas, such as Andes Norte, Diamante and Recourses Norte, already have a clear definition for automation requirements,” Zarum said.

“The approach is very simple,” he said. “We required machines that can utilize the maximum capacity possible with the fastest production rates.”

Similarly, AutoMine was engineered to give “maximum performance” in the smallest possible drifts, “allowing the mine to have a large fleet from Sandvik and to automate the process without losing productivity while increasing safety,” Zarum said. “The current AutoMine system already has the capacity to connect a large fleet to the autonomous cycle, with next-generation navigation and capabilities already included in 2022 and 2023 plans.”

Those plans reveal the partnership is delivering, and will continue to deliver, results, he said.

“Sandvik and Codelco demonstrated how the implementation of autonomous technology allows safer production without losing the productivity,” Zarum said. The partnership “leads the shift in the industry toward digitalization and electrification.”

Selling Automation to a New Market

HARD-LINE reported it received positive feedback from a copper mine in Copiapó, Chile, that deployed TeleOp Assist, an advanced remote control solution with semiautomation functionality.

“The introduction of HARD-LINE’s semiautonomous and auto-assist technology in 2020 was implemented in phases that best suited the mine’s timelines and needs,” said Jeff Joki, product experience manager.

The miner “identified that the use of these combined technologies would allow the introduction of a new mine design with enhanced productivity, safer operations and lower costs,” he said.

Operators are able to turn Assist on or off when needed, “without having to stop the machine, take it out of view from the main view screen, or even take their hands off the joysticks,” Joki said. “Operators appreciate the minimal interaction needed with the touchscreen.”

Other mines in Canada and Australia are giving similar feedback. TeleOp Assist “can also be used with other forms of
TeleOp, like TeleOp Multi and TeleOp Auto, to make the mining process that much safer and more efficient,” he said.

TeleOp is the base system for a suite of solutions that enable the “remote operation of heavy machinery from a control station on the surface or in a safe area regardless of distance,” Joki said.

“Picture yourself in a comfortable control station, with a chair and two monitors, including a touchscreen, joysticks and pedals,” he said. “In the basic Tele-Op system, through teleremote, you can operate one machine no matter the type, like an LHD, rockbreaker, truck, excavator and other vehicles as well.”

TeleOp Assist “provides operators with semiautonomous functionality,” Joki said. “Operators remain in control of the throttle and other functions on the machine, while Assist controls the steering for them, thus keeping the machine from hitting walls and preventing significant machine damage.”

TeleOP Assist, which is available for any model loader, uses 3D LiDAR scanners for machine vision. “As rock piles move or change shape, or a vent tube gets in the way of the LiDAR, Assist is able to handle all those changing environments thanks to our 3D implementation of the technology,” Joki said. LiDAR allows the system “to better identify all the surroundings in the drift and decide what to avoid and what need not be considered when making steering decisions.”

The use of LiDAR makes the solution unique, he said. “In the end, with 3D LiDAR, a pre-scan of the drift is not required, which accounts for significant time and cost savings.” The resulting “ease of installation and deployment results in shorter downtimes.”

The system is “activated using the joysticks, therefore minimal interaction with the touchscreen is needed,” Joki said. “The Operator can turn the assistance on and off without needing to take their hands off the joysticks.”

The system is dynamic, and adjusts “to account for differences in drift sizes, and machine size and geometry,” he said. “Since we offer our technology on any make and model, we considered adjustability to be an important feature of the system so that we could get the performance we are looking for no matter the machine.”

The foremost benefit offered is improved safety. “This system removes operators from dangerous environments while maintaining visibility and real-time communication,” Joki said. “Operators are not exposed to dust, debris, fumes and noise.”

TeleOp Assist can also significantly reduce machine wear and tear. “Fewer repairs and maintenance to the machine means it will be in use more often,” he said.

“These benefits as well as Cruise Control and Takeover Command functionalities allow for increased tramming speeds while maintaining safety,” Joki said. Increased tramming speed results “in more production.”

HARD-LINE’s new TeleOp Assist gives remote controlled loaders semiautonomous capabilities, and can be installed within a work week. (Image: HARD-LINE)

Development for the system officially launched in 2015. “In reality, the research and development of the Assist principles of operation were being worked on as far back as 2012,” he said.

“The sensors used, as well as the driving algorithms and software developed for TeleOp Auto met with great success in the field, so we were able to apply much of that same development to kick start Assist,” Joki said. “The technology was more directly applied to the Assist development in 2018, when the initial versions of Assist were being worked on in a simulation environment.”

Field testing was completed at HARD-LINE’s test mine. “Multiple iterations were deployed at the testing center, each showing improvement over the previous, until the first customer deployment in 2019,” he said.

To adopt and deploy, TeleOp is required, as is a network, an auto server and mounted LiDAR scanners. HARD-LINE offers the BackBone Network.

“To install TeleOp on an LHD, the process is quite quick, as it takes close to three shifts,” Joki said. “We are trying to get it down to two, and then you would need a third shift, like an extra day or two, for Assist.”

That super-fast install “opens up automation to a different market and gives more mines the opportunity to get into automation who otherwise may not have had that option,” Joki said.

“Many mines desire more automation, but it may not be practical or profitable for them as certain forms of automation have a long installation process, and scans can become irrelevant quickly,” he said. “Assist gives those mines the solution they are looking for: just the amount of automation they need, without adding anything unnecessary that may slow them down.”

Increasing Loader Utilization and Uptime

Caterpillar reported internal studies reveal Command for underground can offer up to a 40% increase in machine utilization and an astounding 34% increase in total operating time across a fleet of loaders. That translates to immediate productivity, efficiency and safety gains.

The remote control and automation solution reduces “the downtime required for shift changes, blast times and other conditions that can remove operators from the face,” the supplier said. “It also improves accuracy of tunnel navigation, boosting productivity and reducing machine damage caused by contact with drive walls.”

Command for underground enables remote operation of popular Cat loaders, such as the Cat R1300, R1700 and R2900 models. (Image: Caterpillar)

Command provides options for line-of-sight or non-line-of-sight remote operation.

Offering autonomous capabilities, “Command allows one operator to control multiple machines, another productivity-boosting advantage of the system,” Cat said. It allows operators to be relocated to a safer, more comfortable location underground or on the surface. “It eliminates exposure to noise, dust, seismic activity and other underground hazards and reduces the need for air delivery and cooling.”

Command for underground is designed for the company’s loaders, including, the R1300, R1700 and the R2900. It is part of the Cat MineStar suite for underground. The advanced solutions support digitization and the path to autonomous operations underground.

Fleet for underground offers real-time visibility to cycle time, payload and other key operational parameters. Detect for underground uses a high-precision, peer-to-peer proximity detection system coupled with a communications and tracking network to prevent incidents and track people and machines. MineStar Health collects critical machine health data to improve mining equipment reliability, reduce unplanned downtime and prevent costly failures.

“Technology offerings can be deployed individually or integrated to create a comprehensive technology system that is scalable and configurable to meet the needs of the operation,” Cat said.

“We tailor our MineStar Solutions to the unique needs of the mine,” the supplier reported. “No matter the size, type or complexity of the underground operation, MineStar helps operations deal with the challenges faced every day, such as controlling costs, extending equipment life, working more productively, and keeping people safe.”

Supporting the Journey in Soft Rock

Komatsu reported field results show its automation offerings for continuous miners (CMs) deliver production, safety and efficiency improvements over manual operation.

For example, a customer using Level 1 CM Automation (CMA) logged a cycle time reduction of 28% over manual operation.

Level 1 automation incudes “one-touch shear, controlling the cutting motion with set roof and floor points on our CMs, and automated shear cycles,” said Toby Cressman, senior product manager, room and pillar automation and data solutions, Komatsu. “More advanced features include higher-level CM heading control options.”

Using “Level 2 automation, with automated sump and shear, the mine saw a reduction in cycle time of 50% versus manual operation,” he said. “These results were accomplished while also decreasing cutter motor amps and improving roof, floor and rib conditions.”

With Level 2 automation, the machine will complete the cycles until it is stopped by the operator. “With our two-way remote communication, the operator can still observe the necessary critical information, via the remote screen, to ensure the machine is cutting properly,” Cressman said. “This allows the operator to be positioned farther away from the machine for improved safety.”

Customers in five countries have adopted and deployed CMA and use it in both batch and continuous haulage applications. “It has proven to be beneficial in coal, potash and salt mining applications,” Cressman said. “Our case studies show that CMA is improving mining conditions and driving consistency and productivity, all while moving operators farther from harm.”

Level 1 Continuous Miner Automation offers one-touch shear control and automated shear cycles, and gives cycle time reductions of up to 28%. (Photo: Komatsu)

CMA is offered in a range of levels, each designed to meet specific needs. It enables incremental progress on the path to full automation.

“We also have system-level automation between our Joy CMs and flexible conveyor trains (FCTs),” Cressman said. 

System-level automation includes features “such as Follow Me mode, where the FCT follows the CM through the cutting cycle,” he said. “With the current Follow Me mode offering, we are already utilizing machine-to-machine communication to enable both pieces of equipment to operate in an ideal state.”

CMA uses an array of sensors and the Komatsu Faceboss CM control system. The system can be programmed with the different levels of CMA.

“Running the Joy CM from a remote operating center or management center becomes more feasible as customers move toward increasing levels of automation, a larger number of basic tasks are transitioned from the operator to the control system,” Cressman said. “As the level of automation increases, the burden on the operator is reduced.”

In operating centers, operators can see real-time video, machine display screens, and have access to machine controls, he said. “With Komatsu being able to provide the entire suite of production equipment, one of the benefits of partnering with us for automation is we have the ability to offer these features across the entire section, all on a common, integrated platform.”

Komatsu works with third-party communications companies serving the miner on the network to move data from the CM to the remote operator station. “If the miner has the appropriate communication channels established, the machines can be run using the existing CM remotes or other desired controls,” Cressman said.

The benefits offered by CMA include opportunities to improve safety, and “consistent sump and shear cycles that can lead to increased productivity,” he said. Downstream benefits include, but are not limited to, improved roof, floor and rib conditions, and reduced wear and tear on the equipment.

CMA is the culmination of many years of development. It evolved from “control system algorithms to protect critical components of the machine, to operator-assist features, to more complex automation,” Cressman said.

“Joy’s in-house Faceboss control system is the foundation that has let us expand this technology for decades,” he said. “The evolution of operator assist to automation has been a phased approach aligned with available technologies, approvals and customer needs.”

Customers adopt the system to improve safety or productivity, or to help new operators become more consistent.

“Customers first need to assess their goals and understand what they are looking to achieve from the transition to automation,” Cressman said. “Depending on a customer’s goals, factors such as haulage, bolting or other constraints might be a bottleneck. In such cases, the customer will still see the other benefits of automation, but productivity might not increase.”

Komatsu has an Application team that assists customers “in fully understanding goals and the impact a change will potentially have on an operation,” he said. “Regardless of whether the machine is OE or a rebuild, CMA can potentially drive changes to the hydraulics, display quantity and location, and the remote style that will be provided with the equipment.”

With adoption, “it is good to have a strong change management process in place,” he said. “Automation and changes of this nature can be met with resistance by the workforce, thus it is important to properly plan how the changes are introduced and implemented.”

Typically, Komatsu is a partner throughout the adoption process and beyond. “Our mission is creating value together,” Cressman said. “When development happens in a collaborative environment, and mutual accountability exists, the best outcome is often achieved,” he said. “Goals are aligned, and the end result is mutually beneficial.”

Contributing to the proliferation of automation solutions underground speaks to Komatsu’s “underlying core value” of helping customers achieve safety improvements, Cressman said. “Automation is a journey, and Komatsu is committed to providing various levels of support to align with where each customer sees themselves in the process.”