A new open-pit gold mine in northeastern Ontario has turned to automation — including nearly 300-ton haul trucks that drive themselves — in an effort to increase productivity and worker safety.
The Côté Gold project, near Gogama, halfway between Sudbury and Timmins, is expected to produce approximately 440,000 ounces of gold per year over the next 18 years.
To extract the precious metal, massive Caterpillar mining trucks will transport more than 30,000 tonnes of ore every day so they can be processed.
The mine currently has 14 mining trucks, which can transport around 200 tonnes of ore in a single load, and will have 23 when production fully ramps up.
Toronto-based IAMGOLD, which operates the mine, drew on knowledge from Caterpillar and the Alberta oil sands – where autonomous trucks have been used for several years – to build Ontario’s first mine to use automated vehicles.
Consistency in automation
“The entire mining site has been designed around autonomous (vehicles), which will make the final operation even more efficient,” Graeme Jennings, IAMGOLD vice president of investor relations, said during a telephone interview.
Sarah Loomis, Caterpillar’s head of global autonomous operations, said some of their customers have seen a 30% increase in productivity with autonomous mining trucks.
Loomis said the biggest advantage the vehicles offer is consistency. They will always take the most efficient route to the ore deposit to maximize time and fuel consumption.
“With humans, there are a lot of variables, right? » Loomis said during a Zoom call.
“You might want to drive as fast as possible to get under that shovel and read a book, or you might want to take the slowest route possible because you’re bored today or didn’t sleep well.”
Caterpillar deployed its first fully autonomous mining trucks for Fortescue Metals Group in Australia in 2013. Since then, Loomis said, the technology has advanced significantly.
New types of jobs
The trucks use a combination of GPS, radar and lasers, with light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, to navigate.
When IAMGOLD built the Côté Gold project, engineers had to work around 50 Wi-Fi and cell towers surrounding the open pit to ensure trucks and a fleet of autonomous drills were always connected to their local network.
“These things have to be able to communicate constantly,” said Bryan Wilson, the mine’s general manager.
They communicate with a control center where a few workers track their location and set general routes that trucks should take to reach the ore deposits. But once the routes are defined, the trucks take care of the rest on their own.
Francis Letarte-Lavoie, mine operations director, said during a tour of the mine that a small team will be able to monitor and guide a fleet of 23 autonomous trucks.
“So there will be a controller, a builder,” he said. “There is a bit of technical support and there are normally a few operators in the pit.”
Wilson said the use of trucks has not reduced the number of people working for him at the mine, at least so far. But it has changed the nature of work with more emphasis on technology.
“I think it helps attract a lot of our workforce – they want to come here and work with this stuff because it’s new, it’s cutting edge,” he said. -he declares.
Some employees who previously worked as surveyors have retrained to become so-called constructors and use their knowledge and experience to create the paths that trucks follow to ore deposits.
Telecommunications experts are also needed to maintain the networks that keep equipment running day and night.
Although some tasks have been automated, there are still workers in the surface mine who operate loaders, change bits for automated drills, maintain equipment and perform various other tasks.
Self-driving trucks have priority in the strip mine, but Wilson said there are a number of safety measures to ensure there are no accidents.
Each vehicle in the pit, whether driven alone or driven by a human, has a console that constantly transmits its GPS coordinates. Autonomous trucks are able to see all other vehicles on the network and will automatically stop if they get too close.
Each worker also has an electronic badge they call A-stop, which allows them to stop all autonomous trucks within a certain radius, in the event of a problem.
Wilson said reducing the number of workers at the surface mine would make the operation safer.
In addition to trucks, the project also has a fleet of autonomous drills manufactured by mining equipment manufacturer Epiroc.
The drills automatically follow a plan sent to them from the control room, to drill a series of holes into the rock so workers can place explosives.
Explosives remove pieces of ore which are brought back to process the gold they contain.
“At this point, the drill is inconclusive as to which hole to drill next,” Chris Graves, Epiroc’s business line manager for surface drills in Canada, said in a telephone interview.
“That’s decided by the engineering team and by the operator specifically. We might get to a point where the drill will optimize its productivity by actually determining which hole it should drill next.”
As for the future of mining, Wilson said he doesn’t know what that will entail, but he expects more mines will want to introduce automation to improve their efficiency.