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At the end of last year, ten of the world's largest consumer vehicle manufacturers combined to announce that automated emergency braking systems would be a standard feature in all new vehicle models produced by the companies. The move is designed to reduce the number of rear end collisions which make up about a third of all accidents.

and autonomous braking system braking for a vehicle

While each manufacturer's system would work differently, the fundamental concept is the same: if forward facing sensors detect a slower moving or stopped vehicle ahead, the brakes automatically engage without driver intervention. "We are entering an era of vehicle safety, focused on preventing crashes from ever occurring, rather than just protecting occupants when crashes happen," said Anthony Foxx, US Transportation Secretary in the Los Angeles Times article.

"We are entering an era of vehicle safety, focused on preventing crashes from ever occurring, rather than just protecting occupants when crashes happen,"

Regardless of where your opinion falls on this specific topic, it's important to recognize that the automatic emergency braking system is just one of several autonomous vehicle technologies that have or will shortly make it into consumer vehicles. Advances such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, and automatic parallel parking have already made their debut and are becoming increasingly affordable options. In each case, the combination of sensors and intelligent action on the part of the vehicle has its roots in robotics. The benefits to safety and convenience will continue to push the industry toward robotic vehicles.

However, because of the substantial legal issues involved, the unmanned industry generally has steered clear of consumer vehicles. California recently released draft regulation proposals signaling that liability of these vehicles could rest on the vehicle manufacturers. Nothing has been passed on the federal or state level though so some are still trying to anticipate the eventual adoption of fully automated vehicles on public roads and what it will take to get the industry there. For example, the University of Michigan, in partnership with the Michigan DOT, have created Mcity, a mock "downtown" that simulates the unexpected variables that come with driving in urban conditions, allowing manufacturers to test autonomous vehicles in a realistic environment. ASI also expanded its test facilities in northern Utah to allow for simulating some of these situations.

Fully autonomous systems have already been successfully applied to consumer vehicles in closed/controlled environments. Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) has been working with Ford Motor Company since 2011 and developed a robotic durability testing program. Robotic technology is retrofitted to new vehicle models and operated from a central command center at Ford's Michigan Proving Ground facility. The robotic technology enables Ford to remove human drivers from the most punishing test tracks and run durability testing 24/7.

Despite the progress of the University of Michigan, ASI, and other innovators like Google with their Google Car program, full adoption of autonomous vehicles on the road still seems a ways in the future. But that's not to say that we won't continue to see individual autonomous technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, trickle into the consumer market.

If the last year has taught the mining industry anything, it would be the sheer unpredictability of the sector. Commodity prices continued to dip toward unprecedented lows as the anticipated resurgence of commodities appears farther away than the industry had hoped. Miners are left to brace for more possible bad news in 2016.

But that's not to say that there are not still opportunities to shave costs, improve productivity, and position for the upswing. Deloitte's "Tracking the Trends 2016" report details several strategies that will help companies navigate the mine field that is today's mining industry. Deloitte’s top strategy? Investment in innovation.

"One strategy involves a continued investment in innovation," the report suggests.
"Companies embracing innovation are improving mining intensity whilst reducing people, capital, and energy intensity."
"In fact… some miners have realized energy saving of 10-40% by investing in renewable energy installations, deploying innovative energy technologies, and driving towards more automated mine processes to optimize energy consumption."

Beyond improvements in energy consumption, miners can focus on automating both processes and vehicles to achieve significant productivity gains. In an article to World Coal, ABB's Adrian Beer suggested that the integration of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) can help miners achieve dramatic efficiency gains.
"[IT/OT convergence] allows the entire operation to optimize its production processes to maximize efficiency improvements, sometimes as high as 5-10%, which are results that drop straight to the bottom line."
As sensors become increasingly affordable and as equipment becomes more internet-capable, mining companies will be able to collect and analyze large amounts of data enabling them to pinpoint drains on productivity.

Mobius Command and Control software allows unmanned vehicles to perform in hazardous areas without endangering the operator.
Our Mobius Command and Control software allows unmanned vehicles to perform in hazardous areas without endangering the operator.

"The move toward autonomous vehicles and automated technologies has already revolutionized mining operations," reads Deloitte. "As the 'intelligence' of these machines grows, they will be able to perform increasingly complex tasks, including hazardous activities--reducing labor costs and enhancing productivity as a result." Mining major Rio Tinto demonstrated in numbers released in October that a network of autonomous haul trucks in the Pilbara region outperformed a manned fleet by an average of 12%.

Investment in innovation holds many benefits to mining companies, but this is only one of the suggestions offered by the mining experts at Deloitte. To explore additional suggestions and to gear up for mining in 2016,

Volatility in the mining industry caused by, amongst other things, shrinking global demand and record low commodity prices has left mining companies looking for ways to retool their organizations and processes to cope with what some are calling the “new normal.” Mining majors are beginning to exhaust classic short term fixes, such as Anglo American’s massive restructure that would release 85,000 workers over the next few years, and are now looking to other sources to achieve long term productivity and process improvements.

In the shadow of these challenges, Deloitte released "Tracking the Trends 2016 " The report is designed to focus on the current issues in the mining industry and provide suggestions on where miners can go to meet these challenges. We previously focused on Deloitte’s recommendation to invest in innovation and the massive productivity gains achieved by several mining companies by leveraging technology.

In another strategy, Deloitte suggests mining companies build bridges with other industries to learn and incorporate lessons on process optimization. The manufacturing and automotive industries in particular have a long history with lean production systems as well as investment in robotic technology.

The mining industry can learn from the automotive industry's automation

"The Ford Motor Company is a salient case in point," says Deloitte. "In 2006, the company lost over US$12 billion following a collapse in consumer demand. Between 2011 and 2014, however, Ford realized annual profits ranging from US$6.2 billion to US$8.3 billion."

One of the reasons for this dramatic turnaround—of which we at ASI have a particularly intimate knowledge—was Ford's willingness to
"embrace emerging technologies, such as robotics, self-driving vehicles, connecting vehicles to the cloud, and hybrid and electric vehicle development."
Since 2011, ASI has been working with Ford to develop a robotic durability testing program . The program improves safety by removing test drivers from the most jarring test tracks and improves productivity by allowing vehicles to test 24/7. The same automation technologies that delivered productivity and safety improvements to Ford's durability testing program can be realized in mining vehicle automation.

“Although there are as many differences between the automotive and mining sectors as there are similarities,” Deloitte concluded,
“forward-thinking miners can likely make unanticipated productivity gains by taking lessons from this example.”

Looking to and leveraging lessons learned by other industries may hold the key for improving productivity for mining companies, but this is just one of the suggestions offered by Deloitte. To explore additional suggestions and to gear up for mining in 2016,

"Unfortunately, primarily due to risk aversion (of cost and technology) there is an old adage in the mining sector that 'miners like to be first to be second,'" says EY's Business Risks Facing Metals and Mining 2016 report which focuses on ten industry conditions that could create risks or opportunities for mining companies going into the new year. Amongst the risks highlighted by EY, innovation, or rather mining's natural aversion to innovation, makes the No. 10 spot.

"It is clear that compared with most other sectors, there is a deficit of transformational innovation in the [mining] sector," EY reported.
"The first automated truck was seen 20 years ago and yet there is not a complete fleet in existence at a mine."
The closest thing we have seen to having a fully automated fleet is Rio Tinto's Mine of the Future that touts a network of 69 unmanned haul trucks. Rio's competitors are working to catch up, but in 20 years should not the sector as a whole be farther down the innovation cycle with a technology that is clearly beneficial?

EY's point? Those that innovate will survive. Those that don't? Well, you get the idea.

So, where is the innovation? Driven by seemingly unending demand of the super-cycle's upswing and peak, mining companies were scaling with one focus: output. Little consideration was placed on productivity or innovation, only meeting demand as quickly as possible. However, with today's market now swinging the other direction, miners find themselves in opposite conditions with boards and investors highly averse to any spending outside of necessary operations.

Even amidst these conditions, EY suggests miners are still in a position for investment in innovation: "Just as 'necessity is the mother of invention,' so is super-correction the catalyst for fresh innovation in the sector." As short-term cost cutting methods have been depleted, the report goes on to recommend innovation as a major key to surviving the bottom of the cycle and positioning companies to take off when the anticipated upswing takes place.

As can be seen from the opening quote, though, mining companies that are interested in innovating face an uphill battle, both culturally and through current market conditions. Our aim today is to provide three ways mining companies can avoid the pain of incorporating innovation into their operations:

the Cover of the 2015-2016 EY business risks in mining and metals report

Despite polarizing arguments, manned and unmanned vehicles both hold significant benefits for the mining industry. Miners should look at identifying what mix of human labor and automation is right for their operation.

While studying up on automation in mining, one will generally run across two perspectives. The first perspective is that of automation supporters touting it as 'the' new disruptive technology that will solve nearly all mine safety issue while simultaneously creating dramatic improvements in productivity. The other perspective is that of human labor supporters raising warning flags that automation will eliminate most human-based jobs, leaving a working class unemployed and communities trampled and destitute while corporations line their pockets with profits.

With strong polarizing influencing tugging on this issue, what is the actual position that automation will eventually take? According to Accenture's Nigel Court, the most realistic place is likely somewhere in the middle. "Automation is now being looked at not as a panacea to fix productivity and efficiency on site, rather people are focusing on how it can be applied to solve specific problems encountered on site," Court told Australian Mining's Cole Latimer in his article A Revolution Revolt? The Next Stage of Mining Automation. Court went on to explain that one of Accenture's clients was considering full site automation, but after evaluation "they've come to realize that a combination of both manned and unmanned [is needed] to gain top performance."

Why might a mixed solution be the best?

general and specific intelligence working together

Humans are well equipped for more complex cognitive skills such as adaptation, critical thinking, and creativity. Where mining jobs require troubleshooting and problem solving, creating solutions and making decisions based on data analysis, and adapting solutions to a variety of variables, human labor far outshines machination.

Conversely, humans are not especially good at dull or repetitive tasks (we get bored or tired resulting in a loss of precision), and we generally like to avoid jobs that are dirty and dangerous. By design, machines/robots are much more accurate than humans, making them better suited for repetitive tasks that require precision over long periods of time. In dirty and dangerous tasks, safety would dictate that substituting human labor for machine labor is the best option.

Automated vehicles may provide the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity that today's miners are seeking, but that's not to say that automation is always the best solution. Humans deal very well with anomalies where machines may have trouble. For example, Court described a situation where automation technologies, many still in the testing/proving stages, may actually detract from efficiency:

"A rollercoaster ride" might be the only way to describe 2015 in the mining industry—minus the fun and thrill. Fueled by an economic slowdown in China and a collapse in commodity prices, mining companies globally have been feeling the pain and are turning to drastic measures as they try to cope.

In what reports say is China's largest layoff in recent history, the Heilongjiang Longmay Mining Holding Group Co. announced in late September that it would lay off approximately 40% of its workforce, a staggering 100,000 workers, in order to "stop the bleeding." Anglo American announced in early December it would release 85,000 workers over the next few years in a restructure that would shed 60% of assets.

general and specific intelligence working togetherCommodities price graphs were pulled from NASDAQ on Dec 12th, 2015. Y axis is adjusted to each commodity's price; They are not relative to each other.

With most miners reeling in a similar manner it might come as a surprise that one research group recommends mining companies begin now to invest in future growth. "The switch to growth is looming and assets are now still relatively cheap and ripe for opportunistic acquisition," states EY's Business Risks Facing Mining and Metals 2015-2016 report.
"Given the long lead time to develop new supply, decisions to invest for future growth have to be made now or long-term returns will be lowered."

"It is the paradox that long-term reinvestment and growth is essential for the sustainability of the sector and yet public capital markets are still demanding the opposite," the report continued. "Switch to Growth" made the No. 1 spot in EY’s 2015-2016 risk rankings.

Drastic short-term measures, such as cost cutting and layoffs, can only do so much before long-term solutions must be addressed. "Having reached a ceiling on cost reduction, mining companies have since made substantial progress with their productivity initiatives and working capital solutions," EY's report reads. "We believe that real productivity gains will only come from an end-to-end transformation." EY places "Productivity Improvement" in the No. 2 spot of their 2015-2016 risk rankings.

The Robo Universe Logo

ASI was recently a participant and sponsor of the RoboUniverse robotics conference in San Diego, California. Autonomous Solutions, Inc.’s (ASI) CEO, Mel Torrie, was a keynote speaker and a panel member sharing insights into the robotics world. Mr. Torrie discussed many of the successes and advancements that ASI has made in the robotics industry in autonomy. He also presented about many of the challenges facing the industry and some of the paths ASI is heading down.

"We’re going to get to a place where our #trees have #wearable technology like our bodies," says @RobotCEO.

As sensor technologies continue to develop, the cost of these sensors will decrease making them more and more cost efficient and more applicable. These sensors could be placed on trees, vines, or in the ground in areas to measure all kinds of important environmental information. This information could be monitored and relayed to an autonomous vehicle that would be tasked to perform a specific action for that specific area.

"Scalability will be limited by serviceability - service and support is critical." @RobotCEO

For autonomous vehicles to really move into many various facets of everyday life, scalability will be limited by serviceability. Diagnostics must be reliable and quick to identify any potential issues a system may encounter - then be able to get someone on it quickly to correct the problem.

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  • Gallery Image
Photos © 2015 RoboUniverse Staff

Nick Holland, CEO of Gold Fields, one of the world's largest gold mining firms, recently outlined many of the challenges faced by gold producers—as well as by miners of most other resources—and discussed the roadmap Gold Fields intends to take to thrive in today's mining environment. His address took place at the Future Mining Conference 2015 in Sydney Australia, November 4, 2015.

Holland shared that due to challenges in the recent years such as lower grade of ore deposits, significant global price drops, and cost inflation, "shareholder value [has slumped] by 50-80% since 2007." With pressures on global commodities, today's mining industry at large mirrors this trend, though Holland's presentation provided a dramatic window into just how piercing these pressures have been.
"The gold mine of the future has to be set up, structured, and managed differently from how it is today if it is to remain relevant and value-adding to all its stakeholders,"
Holland concluded.

ASI's bell-crank pedal actuation in a robotic ford durability vehicle

An autonomous rigid haul truck equipped with ASI's OEM agnostic vehicle automation kit.An autonomous rigid haul truck equipped with ASI's OEM agnostic vehicle automation kit.

Rio Tinto Autonomation Numbers Help Miners Invest in Vehicle Robotics with Confidence

Amidst global economic slowdowns, mining companies around the world have been exploring vehicle automation technology as a way to slash costs and improve efficiency in their operations. However, in the absence of concrete numbers proving the effectiveness of vehicle robotics, experts and critics have battled over its ability to make mining operations safer and more efficient. The wait is over as global mining major Rio Tinto released a variety of statistics that not only demonstrate vehicle robotics is effective but how effective.

Deep in the Australian outback, 1200 miles from the nearest major city, Perth, lies a rich mining region known as the Pilbara. Rio Tinto and other global mining majors such as BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) have established mining sites and infrastructures that ferry minerals from their extraction site all the way to port. The extensive networks include long haul routes that require massive mining trucks to transport loads approaching 400 tons (800,000 lbs).