Leading the way on the journey to autonomy
Caterpillar recently began its third decade of developing technologies for the mining industry. But instead of looking back, the industry leader is looking ahead.
“We believe that someday the complete mining process will be automated — from drilling and digging, to loading, hauling, processing and transporting mined materials,” says Caterpillar Product Manager Sean McGinnis. “We envision an operation where most of the equipment is autonomous, which will result in the safest, most efficient mine sites in the world. And we’re building those solutions.”
Caterpillar’s technology products for mining have been delivering results on mine sites around the world for many years. While they continue to be the backbone of what the company offers to its customers today, the focus is on using these technologies and services to take customers into the future.
“We don’t just sell mining technologies; we sell technology business solutions that go well beyond the integration of standalone technology products,” says McGinnis. “They’re customized offerings of products, services and solutions that meet the needs of each individual mine site. These solutions may include products and services that no one has even imagined yet.”
McGinnis points out an important shift in the way mines are using technologies to address very specific needs. “Technologies are advancing at such a rapid pace that the solutions we develop may have a shelf life of months — not years. When a new or better solution becomes available, we want our customers to be able to take advantage of it. We are looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve, to be innovative and agile.”
The biggest development in technology over the last decade has been in machine automation, and Caterpillar has been a leader on the journey toward automation for many years. Today, Cat technologies make it possible for miners to automate a single mining process, remotely control a single machine, automate multiple types of equipment across a mixed fleet, or implement a completely autonomous fleet of haul trucks that operate around the clock with no human intervention.
“Our autonomy product, Command, is proven and growing,” says Caterpillar Mining Technology Director Jim Hawkins. In just over three years, Caterpillar has moved over 500 million tonnes autonomously, outpacing manned operations by over 20 percent — all with zero lost time injuries. “Automation is showing that a step change in safety is possible in mining,” he says.
Command leverages other Cat mining technology capabilities, such as fleet management, machine guidance and object detection, to provide the fully integrated operation of autonomous, semi-autonomous and remotely controlled mining systems. Command works seamlessly with and around all mine site activities, equipment and personnel.
The journey to autonomy
Caterpillar describes autonomy as a journey, and individual mines start their journey in different places. Some will begin with a technology product like Cat Terrain, which uses guidance technology for drilling, grading and loading operations. Others start with Cat Fleet, which serves as an “operational ecosystem” that provides real-time tracking of machines and material movement.
There are different levels of automation, as well. For example, Caterpillar offers truck-spotting and load-positioning technologies that leverage pieces of Command automation to improve manned operations. Remote-control dozing allows operators to remain in control of machines even though they are being operated autonomously.
The significant benefits of automation can be realized with even the simplest of applications, Murphy explains. While full autonomy may be the ultimate goal, individual technologies can be used alone or combined in multiple ways to take advantage of immediate productivity, efficiency and safety gains and serve as the building blocks leading to autonomous mining operations.
“Cat autonomy products easily integrate, they’re scalable and they work on all brands of equipment,” says Murphy. “They also integrate with other technologies and business enterprise systems.”
As Caterpillar customers grow in their usage of technologies, the company is committed to making significant investments in new products that meet their needs in the future. Caterpillar is partnering with the industry in its search for:
- New technologies in ore grade prediction and control to deliver efficiencies in crushing and processing
- More opportunities to use continuous mining methods, including pit crushing and separation
- Technologies that exchange and interpret shared data (interoperability)
- New and improved automation and autonomous offerings
- New and improved mine operation systems
- Enhanced support for predictive maintenance
Caterpillar has been building relationships with other best-in-class technology providers and finding partners to help the company bring new offerings to the industry and rapidly deliver enterprise-wide solutions.
At the end of the day, miners are looking for technologies that help them do more and spend less. “Our technologies are simply the tools we use to help our customers address challenges, solve problems, meet a need or take advantage of an opportunity,” says Murphy.
According to McGinnis, the ability to offer comprehensive solutions is what differentiates Caterpillar “It’s everything we bring to the table that makes the difference. It’s more than 20 years of developing, providing, growing and expanding a complete suite of technology offerings for mining — from fleet management and machine guidance, to safety and equipment health, to automation and full autonomy. It’s our industry experience, our equipment expertise, and the knowledge gained from our broad installed machine base. And it’s our partnerships with other best-in-class providers that allow us to deliver the right technology solution at every level.”
“We’re deeply embedded in the mining industry,” he says. “We understand their needs and have been committed to meeting them for nearly 100 years.”