Volvo Autonomous Solutions and Holcim Switzerland announced this week that they are testing and developing the use of autonomous electric haulers in a limestone quarry. It’s a two-part project, as being able to run electric dump trucks will help Holcim to meet its sustainability goals by switching to renewable energy supplies. Automating the control of the trucks then lets Holcim work towards its digitisation targets as part of its ‘Plants of Tomorrow’ initiative. Holcim Switzerland has also been running a drone programme at the plant (see GCW520) and has been using a few electric concrete mixer trucks since early 2021.
The use of autonomous haulage systems (AHS) in quarries by the cement industry seems to mark the start of something new. As far as Global Cement Weekly can tell, the Volvo Autonomous Solutions - Holcim Switzerland project is the first one in the cement sector that has been announced publicly. Most of the examples of AHS to date have been for heavy mining applications such as iron ore, copper, oil sands and coal. Automation in limestone and aggregate extraction has been slower. One recent example in the aggregate sector was announced in late 2020 when Norway-based technology company Steer said it had signed a contract with Romarheim to supply three autonomous dump trucks for use in a stone quarry. Previously Steer has used its vehicles to clear unexploded ordinance for the Norwegian army.
AHS have been around commercially since the mid-2000s when Komatsu tested and then deployed one at a copper mine run by Codelco in Chile. By September 2021 Komatsu said it had commissioned over 400 trucks with its autonomous system and that these had hauled over 4Bnt of materials. For its part Caterpillar says it started its first automated vehicle research program in 1985 and was even testing a pair of Cat 773 dump trucks in the 1990s. However, it then took a pause before resuming after 2000 and starting its commercial projects in the 2010s. In April 2020 it hit 2Bnt of hauled materials by AHS using its MineStar Command product. Hitachi, Liebherr and Belaz have also been working on their own AHS products in conjunction with third party technology providers and these were developed later in the 2010s. Most of these products are complimentary control systems that have been added to existing models or can be added to new ones. Autonomous vehicle company ASI is the other big name in the field with its Mobius product. Unlike the other systems, this is purely a retrofit product. ASI does not make its own vehicles. Komatsu and Caterpillar have also developed retrofit kits for their systems.
Most of the products above look mostly like normal trucks with the addition of extra kit. Volvo and Scania have also been working on AHS but their products have been taking it further by removing the cab entirely. Scania launched its AXL product in September 2019. Volvo launched its Volvo Autonomous Solutions subsidiary in 2020 and its Tara system electric dump truck the same year. Volvo had previously planned to run a pilot for its Tara truck with Harsco Environmental carrying slag at the Ovako Steelworks in Hofors, Sweden. Unfortunately the pilot was disrupted by the start of the coronavirus pandemic shortly after it started.
It’s early days yet with the use of autonomous vehicles in the quarries of the cement and aggregates sectors. Obvious advantages are additional operational hours, better worker safety and reduced costs. As ever with automation, cutting out human jobs would be one disadvantage for the current workers at least. There is also the possibility that an experienced human driver using efficiency software tools might be better than a fully AHS. A challenge in the field is developing open standards or methods to allow autonomous machines to communicate or work with both products by the same manufacturer and its rivals, as well as with conventional human-driven ones. Another challenge is for the mining and quarrying industry to determine how flexible it wants its heavy vehicles to be. One thought to end with this that an autonomous vehicle with a cab and a steering wheel can still be driven by a human. The cab-less vehicles being tested by Volvo and Scania would be rather less useful if they get into a situation where the software can’t cope. Lots to consider.