Like the famous canaries that were first brought into coal mines from the early 1900s to detect carbon monoxide, creative solutions have long been used to mitigate some of the risk inherent in mining.
Even so, human bodies have long borne the brunt of this cramped and strenuous occupation, from the creeping ‘black lung’ of coal miners to blasting injuries from explosive flyrock. So it’s good news that the new frontier in mining is to remove them from proximity to physical danger as much as possible, perhaps one day entirely.
That’s why automation is a big deal in heavy industries like mining and construction. Leading names of the industry, like British-Australian firms Rio Tinto and BHP and Canada’s Barrick Gold, are all investing large sums of money in automating more and more of the process of mining, including an increasing use of driverless vehicles.
But you can dispel images of retrofitted Teslas from your mind: these vehicles are seven metre high (23ft) giants that can move at 40mph and carry a 230 ton payload.
According to Rio Tinto, these vehicles can boost productivity while helping to improve mine safety at the same time. In the company’s Australian mines, for example, many first generation driverless vehicles are actually operated remotely by crew hundreds of kilometers away, taking drivers away from the punishing summer heat (sometimes in excess of 110° F) and cutting down the risk of errors induced by fatigue or environmental stress.
These remotely operated vehicles are already a boon to the industry, but the latest generation of driverless mining vehicles remove the need for a human operator entirely. Made by Komatsu, a Japanese construction equipment company (and in fact the second largest manufacturer of mining equipment in the world behind Caterpillar), the new line of unmanned haulage vehicles was unveiled at MINExpo 2016, the industry’s flagship equipment show, where they made waves with a completely cabless design.
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