Automatic Success

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Last month BHP’s multi-billion-dollar South Flank in the Pilbara became the company’s fifth Australian mine site to go fully autonomous. The mining giant began transitioning its haulage fleet in April of last year following the site’s opening not even a year prior – marking Australia’s largest iron ore development in almost a century.

BHP had expected to achieve full autonomy in September but has safely delivered the project ahead of schedule and under budget thanks to the embedded project teams’ perseverance.

The transition was phased in across five Autonomous Operation Zones (AOZs). Since the first AOZ went live in June last year, the project progressed, seeing the construction of the on-site Integrated Production and Remote Operations (IPRO) facility, network infrastructure upgrades and the delivery of nearly 3000 training modules to ensure safety while working with the autonomous fleet.

Now, the entire primary haul fleet of 41 Komatsu 930E haul trucks and 185 additional pieces of ancillary equipment, including dozers, excavators, water trucks, front-end loaders and site vehicles, have been fitted with automation kits.

Steve Campbell, General Manager of South Flank, said they avoided the complications of a mixed operation via a carefully phased approach to introduce the autonomous haulage online.

“With our on-site IPRO facility at full capacity and both Primary Crushers accepting autonomous dumping, we can now start to bed in the productivity, cost and maintenance improvements that autonomous haulage delivers through the increased truck hours and more consistent cycle times. I am confident that more improvements will be realised as we optimise autonomous haulage across South Flank.”

It is projected that the insertion of the autonomous haulage fleet will deliver extensive safety, production, equipment utilisation and reliability benefits and new skills and opportunities for the mining and maintenance teams. BHP statistics have revealed that automation has reduced near-miss safety incidents at two of its other mines by as much as 90 per cent.

BHP WA Iron Ore Asset President, Brandon Craig, said, “autonomous haulage at South Flank will build on the success at Jimblebar and Newman East, which have reached benchmarks in safety and productivity since they adopted fully autonomous fleets.” He also expressed his excitement for the associated new job and growth opportunities.

To ensure all machines are kept operational, and the pits can run autonomously, BHP has created up to 60 specialist roles, opening a new set of career options within the company. The new positions include field officers, service technicians and system controllers. Along with recruiting and training individuals for the many new roles required for the autonomous operation, numerous existing employees were upskilled.

The vehicles have been operated from the South Flank site during the transition. Now complete, these operations will transfer to BHP’s Perth office.

As autonomy uptake on mine sites continues to grow and Australia’s mining sector undergoes a transformation driven by automation and digitisation, a new era of productivity, safety, and opportunity will soon be upon us. However, the mining industry must ensure a balance between autonomous systems and human workers. By embracing automation while investing in new and existing employees, the industry can guarantee its long-term success.


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