Caterpillar. Driverless cars are already a reality
Some time later, the Belarusian BELAZ Company also announced the creation of robotic dump trucks. They were sent to the Chernogorsky coal mine in the Republic of Khakassia, where the SUEK Company operates.
In Russia, however, such examples are still more of an exception, at the level of experimental use. While unmanned drilling rigs are already used by mining companies, the introduction of the industry’s “smart” heavyweights - bulldozers and dump trucks - has been somewhat delayed. The technology is available, and buying these machines is not a problem for the leading mining companies - finances allow it. So what is the problem?
“We are not talking about R&D companies, but about commercial ones. Businesses are tied to key performance indicators (KPIs), so they are primarily interested in return on investment. You can re-equip the entire site, but the questions remain: when and to what extent the investment will be recouped, and whether the company is ready to purchase unmanned heavy equipment and switch over to it? Successful implementation requires integration into the existing system: both regulatory and organizational and structural. Serious and systematic work on the legislative base is needed in this sphere. If you hurry, you will end up like with mass access to the Internet: first you do it, and then you start thinking about data protection, ethics, and cybercrimes. Whoever is the first to implement such a project on a serious level will be the driving force and will challenge the competition. Everyone understands perfectly well that if you fall behind in this line, you can seriously lose your position on the market,” says Mikhail Brychkov, regional director of the road construction equipment division for the Central Federal District of Zeppelin Rusland.
On the one hand, automation and digitalization are designed to speed up and facilitate the production process, but on the other hand, it is impossible to unlock the potential of advanced equipment, be able to operate and maintain it without training the technical personnel.
According to Mikhail Brychkov, it is possible to master the skills of working with Caterpillar machines in the Zeppelin Rusland training center, where organizations send their operators for courses. The second option is when the trainers travel directly to the site, give the theory and explain to the operator how to operate the equipment safely and efficiently. Large mining companies can even afford their own training classes. And there are such examples in the Russian market.
One of the most efficient ways to train engineers capable of operating and controlling equipment is to introduce lectures and practical exercises into the university’s educational program. To date, the Caterpillar training and simulator complex has been opened only at St. Petersburg Mining University. The classroom is equipped with three heavy equipment simulators, which fully simulate the workplace of operators of a dump truck, bulldozer and loading and delivery machine and give an idea of how the equipment works in production.
“The training class complemented the university’s rich research and laboratory facilities. I am a graduate of Mining University, so I know about the level of education firsthand. I believe that it was the university that gave me a start in life! In my third year I won the Russian Federation President’s scholarship to study abroad and during the year I studied Mining Engineering and Specialized Software at the Freiberg Mining Academy. In addition, as a part of my studies I passed a two-month internship in South Africa at the De Beers Corporation, which is engaged in mining, processing and sale of natural diamonds. When I got there I had a real shock!”- Mikhail Brychkov recalls.
The level of automation was off the charts - back in 2006, conveyor equipment moved without operators, with sensors and cameras installed. The machines were controlled automatically from the control room. Only one operator on the surface was monitoring. All geomechanical processes were controlled remotely.
“Fifteen years ago the gap between the technologies used by our countries was huge. Things have changed dramatically since then. What seemed like a fantastic plot from the works of the Strugatsky brothers has now become our reality. As far as I can tell, the mining and quarrying sector in all countries is developing at about the same level. It is about economic efficiency and personnel safety requirements, so no one wants to stay behind the line of progress. Russia makes huge investments in modernization. The lineup and the equipment are not much different from Australia or Canada. But there are two important points. The first is the difference in environmental requirements. In Western countries, everybody is concerned about reducing the volume of hazardous emissions; therefore, the engines must comply with Tier 4 Final or higher. In our country, these indicators are much lower. Secondly, we could pay a little more attention to the comfort and convenience of the operators," says the regional director of the construction equipment division in the Central Federal District of the official Caterpillar dealer.
He once witnessed a situation in Germany when the head of a crushed stone quarry refused to accept a dump truck worth about 800,000 Euros because there was no additional rubber step at the entrance to the cab. It turned out that the machine had been bought specifically for the driver, who for reasons beyond his control overturned during unloading and was injured. The union obliged the management to buy him a dump truck with a special "bus" seat and that step.
Mikhail Brychkov has been working at Zeppelin’s Russian office for eleven years. He was hired as a sales specialist for quarry equipment. Initially, commerce did not attract the young man, but the specifics of the company played a large part. Zeppelin Rusland has several lines of business - road construction equipment, power units, mining and quarrying equipment, and automated control systems for road construction. Considering the development of the core industry in our economy, the mining department at Zeppelin Rusland has been set up as a separate unit, and its director has a clear preference for mining engineers when hiring new employees.
“There have always been many representatives of my alma mater among the employees. The division’s specialists conduct feasibility studies and comparisons, calculations of the required fleet, field tests, and testing of pre-production samples of equipment at enterprises. When supplying equipment, customers - chief engineers and heads of enterprises - want to see before them not only a seller, but first of all a partner, a specialist who understands the tasks, problems and conditions of application of equipment and helps select the machines. When choosing between competitors, the customer is not only comparing basic technical parameters. It’s a battle of technologies that needs to be understood,” explains Mikhail Brychkov.
Within two years, he rose to head of mining projects and became responsible for working with key Western companies that have facilities in Russia - LaFarge, Holcim, Sibelco, Heidelbergcement, Knauf. He then moved to the Central Region road construction equipment division and took the position of regional director in 2019. The position is related to the supply of machines and their technical support to road construction companies, as well as to companies involved in the extraction and sale of inert construction materials.
"Automation in the road industry is moving by leaps and bounds. There are numerous examples. It is already unthinkable that federal construction projects can be completed without 3D leveling systems. Profiling parameters are no longer input manually, but are now being electronically downloaded into the equipment. Then the surveyor or geodesist remotely controls the process, and the operator (driver) makes sure that the equipment works according to the set plan. This is today, and tomorrow is the absence of a person in the cab,” says Mikhail Brychkov.
Minimizing the human factor is the basic foundation for all new technologies. However, the introduction of the latest technology is more intensive in the underground space. Technologies will make it possible to achieve not only savings in the wage fund, but also to reduce the number of employees working in harmful and arduous conditions. It can be predicted that the transition to full automation and remote control in the mines will happen 5-10 years faster than in the quarries and road-building industry.