At this open-pit gold mine in northeastern Ontario, the trucks drive themselves

At this open-pit gold mine in northeastern Ontario, the trucks drive themselves

A new open-pit gold mine in northeastern Ontario has turned to automation — including nearly 300-tonne hauling trucks that drive themselves — in a bid to increase productivity and worker safety.

The Côté Gold project near Gogama, halfway between Sudbury and Timmins, is expected to produce around 440,000 ounces of gold a year over the next 18 years.

To extract the precious metal, massive Caterpillar mining trucks will haul more than 30,000 tonnes of ore every day so they can be processed.

A yellow hauling truck with a yellow loader next to it.
The hauling trucks drive themselves, but other tasks at the Côté Gold mine are still done by humans. An operator drives the loader to the right. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

The mine currently has 14 of the mining trucks, which can carry 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, has leaned on knowledge from Caterpillar and the Alberta oilsands — where autonomous trucks have been used for several years — to build Ontario’s first mine to use the automated vehicles.

Consistency in automation

“The whole mine site has been designed around autonomous [vehicles], and that’s going to make the ultimate operation that much more efficient,” said Graeme Jennings, IAMGOLD’s vice-president of investor relations, in a phone interview.

Sarah Loomis, Caterpillar’s manager of worldwide autonomous operations, said some of their customers have seen a 30 per cent increase in productivity using autonomous mining trucks.

A man sitting at a desk with two large monitors.
A small team of workers in the Côté Gold project control room can monitor the mine’s fleet of autonomous trucks and drills, and create paths for them to follow. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

Loomis said the biggest benefit the vehicles provide is consistency. They’ll always take the most efficient path to the ore deposit to maximize time and fuel usage.

“With humans, there’s a lot of variables, right?” Loomis said in a Zoom call.

“You may want to drive as fast as you possibly can to get underneath that shovel and read a book, or you may take the slowest possible route because you’re bored today or you had a bad sleep.”

Caterpillar deployed its first fully autonomous mining trucks for the Fortescue Metals Group in  Australia in 2013. Since then, Loomis said, the technology has advanced considerably.

New types of jobs

The trucks use a combination of GPS, radar and lasers, with light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, to orient themselves.

When IAMGOLD built the Côté Gold project, engineers had to work around 50 Wi-Fi and cellular towers surrounding the open pit to ensure the trucks, and a fleet of autonomous drills, were always connected to their local network.

“These things have to have communication all the time,” said Bryan Wilson, the mine’s general manager.

They communicate with a control centre where a few workers track their locations and set the general routes the trucks should take to reach the ore deposits. But once the routes are set, the trucks handle the rest on their own.

Francis Letarte-Lavoie, the mine’s operations manager, 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 one controller, one builder,” he said. “There’s a bit of technical support and there’s normally some operators in the pit.”

Wilson said using the trucks hasn’t reduced the number of people who work for him at the mine, at least so far. But it has changed the nature of the work with a greater focus on technology.

A white sign with a list of five safety rules.
Before entering the open pit, employees are reminded of safety rules when working near autonomous vehicles. (Jonathan Migeault/CBC)

“I think it’s helping with attracting 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.

Some employees who previously worked as surveyors have been retrained to be what are called builders, and use their knowledge and experience to create the paths the trucks follow to ore deposits.

Telecommunications experts are also needed to maintain the networks that keep the equipment running day and night.

While some tasks have been automated, there are still workers in the open pit who operate the loaders, change the bits for the automated drills, maintain the equipment and do a variety of other tasks.

The autonomous trucks are given the right of way in the open pit, but Wilson said there are a number of safety measures to ensure there aren’t any accidents.

Safety measures

Each vehicle in the pit, whether it’s driving itself or by a human, has a console that is constantly beaming its GPS co-ordinates. The autonomous trucks are able to see every other vehicle on the network and will automatically stop if they get too close.

Every worker also has an electronic badge they call an A-stop, which allows them to stop every self-driving truck within a certain radius, if there’s an issue.

Wilson said reducing the number of workers in the open pit will make the operation safer.

A close up of a monitor with a colourful map on it.
Every vehicle that enters the open-pit mine has a console that tracks its location and pings nearby autonomous vehicles. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

In addition to the trucks, the project also has a fleet of autonomous drills made by mining equipment manufacturer Epiroc.

The drills automatically follow a plan, sent to them from the control room, to drill a series of holes down into the rock so workers can plant explosives. 

The explosives clear out pieces of ore that are hauled back to process the gold inside.

“The drill at this point is not deciding which hole to drill next,” said Chris Graves, Epiroc’s business line manager for surface drills in Canada, in a phone interview.

“That’s decided by the engineering team and the operator specifically. We might get to a point where the drill will optimize its productivity by actually figuring out 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 bring in automation to improve efficiency.

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