The creation and adoption of open standards will slash the price of autonomy considerably, and the value opportunity in moving to fully automated sites is enormous. photo: Rio Tinto

E&MJ speaks exclusively to Clareo Board Chair Peter Bryant and Managing Director Satish Rao, who are leading a unique consortium of mining companies on the quest to realize the full value of autonomous technologies

By Carly Leonida, European Editor

Despite more than 15 years of investment and development in autonomous technologies, less than 3% of mobile mining equipment is autonomous today. But this will soon change.

The Mining Interoperability and Open Systems Consortium was officially launched on December 8. E&MJ caught up with Board Chair Peter Bryant and Managing Director Satish Rao, both from growth strategy firm Clareo, who are leading the initiative to find out more about the group’s creation and purpose.

“In early 2021, we worked with five companies around the need to develop a set of standards to drive open interoperability in mining, particularly for autonomy,” Bryant said. “Because the proprietary architectures that dominate the industry prevent the adoption of a lot of new innovations. The idea behind the project was to work as a collective to see if these companies could align around a common vision for achieving that.”

Satish Rao is managing director at Clareo.

Peter Bryant is Clareo’s board chair.

Following an initial sprint that lasted three months, the five companies agreed on their mission and operating principles. A nonprofit was formed and incorporated out of Illinois, U.S., and the Mining Interoperability and Open Systems Consortium — MIOS for short — was born.

“We’ve identified the four major workstreams that will kick off the project,” Bryant explained. “We’ve also identified around a dozen partner companies that we want to work with the consortium on each of those workstreams.”

The beauty of having a company like Clareo coordinate MIOS is that it brings both deep autonomy experience and cross-sector innovation expertise to the table, including from oil and gas and technology projects.

“The workstreams are all based around short sprints with very specific outcomes. We didn’t want to get into large, capital-intensive, multiyear projects, which are typical in mining,” Bryant added. “For the mining industry, this is moving quite fast.”

Creating Demand-side Consortium

At its core, MIOS is what’s known as a “demand-side consortium.” It is a group of mining companies, led by mining companies, based on the shared belief that a mining-company-led approach is the fastest and, possibly, the only path to achieving the true openness and interoperability that will accelerate the path to fully automated mine sites.

“Rio Tinto is excited to be a founding member of MIOS,” said Santi Pal, managing director, group technical, at Rio Tinto. “We believe a mining-company-led effort will unlock opportunities through accelerated adoption of open standards and change the face of mining.”

Under MIOS’ main mission, there are a few goals. First, to accelerate the commercial adoption of existing open, interoperable standards and, where these are lacking, potentially partner to develop new ones. Second, to help the mining community realize the full value of autonomy and automated mines. And third, to bring outside innovation into the sector.

Rao explained the thinking behind this structure. “Demand-side consortiums have been very successful in other industries, and there were two particular analogies that we studied in establishing MIOS,” he said.

“The first was in the information, communication technology (ICT) sector, a wireless telecom standard called GSM, which traces its roots to a Memorandum of Understanding signed by 13 operators to cover areas such as roaming and interconnection, and eventually to standards leading to 5G used today. Prior to GSM and these standards, data roaming for mobile devices was slow and expensive for users, and a massive commercial issue.

“When the first 1G and 2G standards came out, it was actually the operators who signed these MOUs and committed to deploying equipment developed to open standards. They brought everybody together to discuss about how infrastructure and mobile equipment could be made compatible through standards, regardless of who the network provider was.

“The supply base caught on quickly and soon, they were leading the way, because they saw the two things happen. One was the creation of openness and competition, which everybody wants. And second, it drove rapid adoption of mobile cellular technology and led to more than 20 years of innovation and commercial success that we see today.”

Another example is the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) that was founded in the oil and gas sector by Exxon Mobil in 2016 to break down some of the restrictions and expenses around proprietary control systems.

“We were inspired by the success that we’ve seen in those industries,” Rao said. “There aren’t many examples of demand-side consortiums, but they’re very effective. An open universe brings the best innovations to market faster and benefits everyone.

“These kinds of initiatives will always be met with initial resistance from some suppliers but, once they develop the right commercial and engagement models, there is the chance for them to help lead and accelerate change. That’s what we’re hoping to achieve with MIOS.”

Bigger Opportunity

From the mining company perspective, the creation and adoption of open standards will slash the price of autonomy considerably, and the value opportunity in moving to fully automated sites is enormous.

“Autonomy is valuable by itself; it offers various productivity, safety and efficiency gains in different function,” Bryant said. “But, once you have open data access from mine-to-mill, the ability to optimize becomes tremendous.

“These companies want undisputable ownership and access to their operational data, without charges and without being locked into proprietary siloes. Once they have those, then they have the ability to optimize their systems and drive greater business value.”

Many mining companies are starting to realize this and are building their own data lakes to enable operational optimization. They view that as part as their competitive advantage based on their operating model, their footprint, what works for them… It’s their secret sauce.

That is the bigger value unlock that MIOS has its eyes on for the industry.

“From an operator perspective, the other benefit is the ability to work across multiple vendors — to have plug-and-play solutions,” Bryant said. “Very rarely do mines have a single-OEM fleet. Each OEM has its own control system, automation system, etc. and data transfer between those systems tends to be one directional. Today, it’s very difficult to optimize and automate a mixed fleet.”

The need for plug-and-play solutions is particularly evident in Light Detecting Radar (LiDAR) technology. There have been massive advances in LiDAR over the past five years driven, primarily, by the haulage and passenger vehicle industries. But, due to the way in which mining AHS technology stacks are built and delivered, mines can’t take advantage of these innovations in a timely manner.

“Mining companies are currently blocked out of that,” Bryant said. “Which is a big problem, particularly in autonomy, because the rate of innovation going on in the trucking, passenger car and other off-road industries is off the charts.

“Miners want to encourage startups into the mining space. They want the latest autonomous technologies, which offer higher and safer performance at a reasonable cost.”

Many haul truck OEMs have architected their own systems to be open and interoperable. photo: Hitachi

Path Toward Mine-to-mill Autonomy

The issue with current data formats, particularly those for mobile equipment — there has been a certain level of standardization for fixed equipment inside mineral processing plants — is that most were developed by individual companies or OEMs. This limits data access and transfer to and from systems developed by other manufacturers.

This issue has not gone unnoticed by industry, and various standards already exist or are under development by agencies like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Society for Automation (ISA) that are applicable to mining.

Where suitable data standards already exist or are under development, MIOS aims to partner with agencies to speed their development and commercialization. However, where appropriate standards are lacking, the consortium also plans to help drive new ones.

“MIOS will have more of a commercialization focus than a technical focus, and you will see that, in one of the workstreams, that there is an existing ISO effort which MIOS will support,” Rao explained. “There’s no point reinventing a solution where something good already exists as a starting point.”

The first workstream will focus on opening up the interface between autonomous solutions and the drive-by-wire system on mine trucks and other vehicles.

“A lot of the potential partners we are working with have architected their solutions to be open and interoperable,” Rao said. “Some are keen to donate some of the interface work they’ve done toward an open-source. There’ll be two or three partners working together in workstream one to define what that autonomy solution to open drive-by-wire standard could look like, starting with the contributions that these companies are ready to make right now.”

The first sprint will define the standard to a level where it could potentially be taken to a standards agency (it could eventually reside in an ISO body, for example) for further development. The second sprint will focus on the proof-of-concept validation i.e., actually running vehicles on the standard.

The second workflow, a natural progression from the first, will concentrate on the interface between autonomous haulage systems (AHS) and fleet management systems (FMS). Current FMSs are very dispatch-centric and, even when there’s some level of automation, humans are still needed to oversee the software that tells the trucks where they can go, what’s drivable and what’s not.

To enable step-change efficiencies, FMSs will need to migrate to enable level four (high driving) or five (full driving) vehicle automation and orchestration. Alternatively, a future orchestration layer might entirely replace today’s FMS.

“We think that’s the most likely outcome,” Rao said. “That FMSs will eventually be replaced by a true orchestration solution at the top that handles multiple resource requests based on input from mine planning. It knows how many trucks and shovels it has and does the dispatching and scheduling automatically, without human involvement. Then the vehicles execute the commands. That’s necessary to enable a fully automated mine to function.”

The first sprint in workstream two will open up the FMS to AHS layer. Much of that work already exists through an ISO technical committee, and MIOS would like to support the proof-of-concept and help spread the word.

The second sprint is non-technical and aims to drive commercial awareness, training and education, to help mining companies begin writing these new specifications into their commercial request for proposals (RFPs) when putting contracts out to tender.

The MIOS team have mapped out objectives and timelines for the first two workstreams. Workstream three, which is a little further off, aims to speed the development of that future orchestration layer suitable for fully automated mines.

“Currently, there are a significant number of hurdles to achieving that,” Bryant said. “According to our partners, some of them can be tackled readily. For instance, there are no common definitions for maps. There are common mapping systems, but each FMS has nuances around weigh outs and intersections, sharing of lanes etc. There’s no common way to address that.

“In the future, if there’s no human overseeing the system, how does an orchestration agent know that it’s safe for a truck to cross an intersection? Especially in the mining environment, when there may be roads that existed last week, but aren’t drivable this week because conditions have changed. Systems need to be more autonomous in that regard.”

While the first three workstreams focus on the technology stack for autonomous vehicles, the fourth will go a step further and look at mine-to-mill integration.

“This is about more than just autonomy for load and haul fleets; it’s about automating everything from the mine to the mill, and realizing the full value of that,” Bryant said. “In the fully autonomous mine, there are use cases where the orchestration layer will need to share information about the composition of material in stockpiles and truck loads with the processing plant, for example. But equally, within the processing plant, we want to explore how those systems could receive that data and process it to optimize downstream processes.”

The first sprint will identify some use cases that mining companies can align to, where the value is and what’s achievable. It will also consider which existing standards might be suitable; ISA 95 already exists, but some of MIOS’ partners have suggested that these standards are quite Australia-focused and OPC UA might be more applicable globally. This work could potentially lead into a proof-of-concept.

For now, MIOS will focus on kicking off each of the workstreams with its partners and expanding MIOS membership beyond the founding members.

One day soon, the level of technological sophistication seen in operations like fully electrified, fully autonomous container terminals could be possible in mining. photo: Unsplash

Fully Autonomous and Automated Mine

The end goal, of course, is to enable the creation of fully autonomous and automated mine sites, with no people inside the fence. Realistically, how far away are we from that vision?

“There’s still a long way to go,” said Rao, honestly. “Even with the most aggressive timelines…By 2025, we might see pockets of integrated mine-to-mill automation, or smaller mines (100-ton truck class) that are designed to be autonomous from the ground up. But large-scale mine sites that are fully automated inside the fence are still sometime away.”

Bryant added: “It’s arguable as to whether we’ll see underground mines develop faster, because it’s a much more fixed environment. For example, Resolute claims its Syama mine in Mali is 100% autonomous underground. Some of the bulk commodity mines are getting close as well.”

As part of its research for MIOS, the Clareo team recently visited a container terminal at the port of Long Beach, California, which is fully electrified, fully autonomous, and considered one of the most technologically advanced terminals in the world.

“It’s a massive facility and very complex,” Bryant said. “I think we’re still some time away from seeing operations of that scale in mining. But a big container terminal or port is quite similar to a mine in many respects.

“There are hundreds of thousands of containers, stacked five deep being shifted around all the time, much like blocks on a mine plan. We watched the autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs) stopping and starting, waiting at intersections… They optimized their locations, both for the work performed and working closer and closer to the battery swapping station as their charge level depleted. The orchestration layer was constantly moving the vehicles around to make sure they didn’t have to drive from one end of the 300-acre facility to the other when they needed to swap batteries.

“It was pretty smart. And it’s very exciting to consider that level of sophistication and efficiency could eventually be possible in mining.”