Semi-autonomous dozers present an avenue for one of the next great step changes in mining production, according to Wolff Mining’s Andrew Miller.
“My vision is a level of productivity that the world has never seen before – with a dragline or truck/shovel operation combined with at least half a dozen semi-autonomous dozers,” Mr Miller said.
These machines would be able to safely work in places that those with operators on board could not, such as underneath a swinging dragline arm, allowing operational changes with the potential to bring big results.
They also offered benefits in terms of operator wellbeing, such as increased career longevity, while opening the way for increased gender diversity in the sector, Mr Miller said.
The idea is far from ‘pie in the sky’.
Mr Miller is Wolff Mining’s project manager for autonomous mining, and with three such semi-autonomous Cat D11T dozers in operation at Curragh mine in Central Queensland since mid-2017 their capabilities are clear.
Wolff was also called upon for a mine emergency near Moranbah late last year, using remote-controlled dozers to access an exclusion zone.
Mr Miller said Wolff Mining had recently expanded its capability by taking the semi-autonomous fleet to seven and it hopes to extend their use to other sites.
It has two chairs set up for remote command of the machines.
The Australian-first production trial at Curragh is being conducted in partnership with Hastings Deering and Caterpillar.
“We, including Hastings Deering and Caterpillar, have learnt a lot along the way about the implementation of this technology in Australian mining conditions,” Mr Miller said.
Mr Miller said Wolff had renewed its contract with Curragh for another three years, but it was uncertain at this stage whether that site would seek the four additional semi-autonomous dozers or they would be employed elsewhere.
Mr Miller said Peabody’s Wilpinjong mine in New South Wales and the Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming, plus one other in the United States, were the only other mines using semi-autonomous dozers.
“Black Thunder was the first set up for semi-autonomous dozers (in 2011),” he said. “Seven years on there have only been three more places in the world that have got on board (two of which are in Australia).
“It is a slow technology diffusion curve, due in part to the mining industry having been in a bit of a trough.
“But in the last three or four months I’ve been hearing more names of companies interested in this and bigger companies too. I think it has a big growth future.”