Self-driving heavy haulers: Coming to a mine near you

Self-driving heavy haulers: Coming to a mine near you

Suncor Energy announced the roll out of autonomous hauling systems (AHS) this week, better known as self-driving dump trucks. The company says it will start with its North Steepbank mine and eventually ramp up to 150 autonomous vehicles over the next 6 years.

Suncor has been working with Japan's Komatsu, testing several of their autonomous trucks over the past few years. The trucks are guided by GPS, equipped with collision avoidance, route mapping and obstacle detection. Although equipment collisions are rare in the oil sands, they can be especially deadly, given the massive size of the vehicles. Less stop-and-go translates into less wear-and-tear, improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

Self-driving technology: Not new for the mining industry

AHS CONTROL SYSTEM (COURTESY KOMATSU)

Although driverless trucks would be new for the oil sands, the technology is already being used in the conventional mining sector. Komatsu commercialized its AHS 10 years ago, and says it now has more than 100 autonomous trucks in place around the world. Rio Tinto was the company's first customer, employing the technology at a remote Australian copper mine, located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The vehicle's speed and routing is transmitted wirelessly from a control centre to the driverless truck, equipped with a GPS. During loading, the trucks are automatically guided next to the shovel, which is also equipped with a GPS for exact positioning. The computer then guides the truck to the offloading location. The entire mining fleet is controlled from an operations centre in Perth, more than 1,500 km away. Komatsu says its customers have seen a 15% improvement in productivity and 40% increase in tire life.

As usual, everything is a lot bigger in the oil sands. Suncor's plan to purchase 150 autonomous vehicles would dwarf the number of self-driving trucks already in service.

You do the math

Suncor says it has about 800 heavy equipment operators at its Base Plant mines, and another 600 drivers at Fort Hills. Each truck requires 4 drivers since the mines operate 24/7, and each driver costs the company in excess of $200,000 annually. The switch to driverless trucks, if successful, could mean major cost savings, and potentially major layoffs.

As will all technological changes, the move will require a shift in skill set. Although the trucks are "driverless", a remote operator will still be required. There's the added risk of computer malfunction, loss of signal and cyber-hacking. According to Suncor COO Mark Little, the company expects to de-staff 400 drivers over the next 6 years. But some of those layoffs might to be mitigated by retraining employees for other positions.

Innovate or die

The oil sands industry is no stranger to innovation, having faced several existential crisis since the 1960s. The invention of slurry hydrotransport, low-temperature extraction and paraffinic froth treatment were significant technological step changes, each helping to lower costs in the oil sands. The phase-out of bucketwheels and draglines in the early 1990s were credited with saving the industry as a whole when oil prices were hovering closer to US$10 a barrel and oil sands mining faced extinction. Although this may not be good news for mine operators, it might be a critical step in keeping the oil sands competitive.

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