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It has been ten years since Komatsu first commenced trials in Australia of autonomous mining haul trucks at a Rio Tinto iron ore mine. Today, Komatsu has more than 80 autonomous mining trucks operating across four Rio Tinto mines in Western Australia with plans for this to increase to more than 140 by the end of next year. [1] 

Komatsu has also recently developed a retrofit kit which enables a conventional mining truck to be modified for autonomous haulage.  The retrofit kits are being deployed on a number of Rio Tinto’s existing trucks.  Komatsu also has enhancements planned which will enable the autonomous fleet of trucks to safely operate alongside driver operated haul trucks.[2]  The autonomous trucks are controlled remotely and operate on a pre-defined GPS route.  Since their implementation Rio Tinto’s fleet has moved one billion tonnes of material.

Rio Tinto has also been conducting trials of fully autonomous freight trains in the Pilbara region. In 2017, a train without an on-board driver successfully completed a 100 kilometre pilot journey which was remotely monitored both locally and as far afield as Rio’s Operations Centre in Perth. Rio’s goal is to operate the world’s first fully autonomous heavy haul long distance rail network transporting ore from mines to port terminals.[3]  Rio’s ambitions also extend to autonomous drilling.  Rio currently has eleven autonomous drilling systems operating at mines in the Pilbara with a further nine coming online by the end of this year.[4]

Aerial drones are also starting to play a role in autonomous mining with drones being used to obtain highly accurate 3D map data and provide real time aerial footage. Autonomous mining equipment require super accurate data on the physical environment to successfully navigate the often irregular and changing mining landscape which they must share with both other machines and workers.  Komatsu recently ordered 1,000 high-precision drones from market leading Chinese drone manufacturer DJI.  The drones are fitted with  vision software provided by US startup Skycatch Inc (in which Komatsu has invested), and are able to produce real time data and maps accurate to five centimetres.  The data gathered is used to provide Komatsu’s vehicles with the necessary level of information on the surrounds for autonomous operation.[5]

Caterpillar, one of Komatsu’s key competitors, is also actively involved in developing new technology in the mining industry. In March 2017, Caterpillar entered into a collaborative agreement with Mining3 and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) for the research and development of a camera based positioning system to accurately track vehicles underground. With GPS being ineffective underground, positioning technologies have to date relied on costly laser technology or the installation of substantial infrastructure within the mine.  The system is still in development but aims to track vehicles underground to within centremetres.

Newtrax Technologies is a company which specialises in providing electronic safety, analytics and productivity solutions using sensor based technology in underground mines. Since March 2017, Newtrax has been in partnership with a world leading artificial intelligence research centre in Montreal called the Institute for Data Valorisation (IVADO).  Together they are working on a machine learning project in which algorithms are used to determine relationships in data and subsequently make predictions.  By applying to machine learning algorithms sensed data captured by Newtrax systems on events associated with mining vehicles over many years, the projects seeks to demonstrate the extent to which analysed data can be used to optimise mining operations.  For example, by applying data from vehicle sensors to an algorithm for vehicle maintenance, it could potentially be predicted as to when a vehicle component is likely to fail.  This type of information could then be used to accurately determine appropriate planned maintenance schedules.

Komatsu, Caterpillar and Newtrax along with many other companies developing mining automation technology including Sandvik and Hitachi are actively seeking to patent their innovations in order to obtain a competitive advantage.  Caterpillar, for example, has filed over 250 Australian patent applications in the past three years.  Komatsu filed approximately 75 Australian patent applications over the same period.  By obtaining patents, these companies will be well placed to prevent competitors from copying their innovations.

In Australia, the process of obtaining a patent typically commences with the filing of a provisional patent application providing a detailed description of the invention. In most instances the application will also include drawings to support the description and claim statements which define the boundaries of the monopoly sought.  The preparation of a patent application is an interactive process between the patent attorney and the inventor and requires from the latter substantive technical information regarding the invention.  Once an application is filed the invention can be publicly disclosed without jeopardising the applicant’s ability to obtain patent rights.  Prior to filing, only confidential disclosures of the invention should be made.  Before deciding to file a patent application, it is worth considering having a patent attorney conduct some patent searching in your technology field to locate patent literature which may impact upon the patentability of your invention.

[1] Rio Tinto Media Release 30 January 2018

[2] Komatsu Press Release 29 January 2018

[3] Rio Tinto Media Release 2 October 2017

[4] Rio Tinto Media Release 1 May 2018


As published in AMT magazine Jun/Jul 18.

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