Big Developments in Trucking Technology
Editorial by Marek Krasuski
Ever since the closing of sawmills decades ago, and later, the relocation of Government Offices to points beyond, the village of Gogama in Northern Ontario has undergone significant changes. Today it is home to mainly retirees, and serves as the hub of some tourist activity. The abundance of lakes, wildlife and ATV trails still lure wilderness vacationers from larger centers during summer months.
If the area’s future goes according to plan, Gogama is on the cusp of a renaissance of sorts, and possibly a dramatic cultural and economic transformation. For decades the region has been the focus of gold exploration, though always a tertiary activity going on largely unnoticed by most. Only until recently have the long-known gold reserves attracted players who have the capability to harness these natural resources and bring them to market.
Enter IAM Gold, a mid-tier international company that currently operates four gold producing mines on three continents. If the company’s plan of action to build a mine here is finalized in the coming months, there will be a sea change of activity. The mine site, aptly named the Cote Gold Project after the lake which the Company must drain before open-pit construction begins, will convert a large tract of wilderness, about 20 kilometers southwest of Gogama, into an industrial hub of activity. The scope of the project, at least to area folks accustomed to everything small and quiet in recent years, is huge. The open pit will measure some two kilometers long by one and a half kilometers wide. Roads will snake around and down the pit’s walls so haulage trucks can descend to targeted locations, then drill and haul ore and waste from the mine.
What came as a shock to some at a Big Event Mine Expo earlier this year was the announcement by Steven Bowles, Manager for the Cote Gold Project, that the haul trucks will be driverless. The idea may be novel in this part of the country, but these remote behemoths have been used with much fanfare in other parts of the world and in other industries in Canada as well.
Suncor Energy for example has deployed driverless ore hauling trucks in the Alberta oil sands; this, after a testing period of about 4 years where it assessed 400-tonne capacity Komatsu hauling trucks. Suncor plans on expanding its driverless truck inventory to 150 units over the next six years.
Elsewhere, driverless trucks have been hard at work. In Australia the British based mining company Rio Tinto has been using 73 driverless trucks to move ore from its mine site in the region of West Angelas. These trucks are also made by the Japanese manufacturer Komatsu. Combinations of GPS, radar and laser sensors, which are the trucks’ eyes, enable the units to negotiate the terrain at the mine site. Also known as autonomous vehicles, the trucks are programmed to drive to the load site, wait to be filled, and move on to the next destination.
The fact that several companies who have deployed driverless trucks plan on expanding their inventories solidifies the benefits they yield. And Carol Banducci, IAM Gold’s Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer, couldn’t agree more. In a statement she drew attention to the harnessing of these technologies as the Cote Gold projects gets underway. “We’re already seeing the value of integrating digital technologies into our operations, from maintenance, safety and compliance to mine planning and heavy machinery operation,” she said, adding, “we need fewer heavy equipment operators and more software engineers, robotics experts, cybersecurity specialists and data analysts.”
Autonomous trucks can run 24 hours a day and need only stop for fuel. This means fewer trucks need to be employed in operations. Moreover, parts such as tires reportedly last 40 percent longer because driverless trucks avoid sudden acceleration and sharp steering. And since autonomous trucks provide the same work as a skilled driver, regardless of remoteness of location, companies need not worry about the quality of their labour force in faraway mines where the employment pool may be small.
All well and good for the companies, but what of the impact on workers? Those heavy equipment operators whose livelihoods depend on using their well-honed skills – skills that technology is rendering obsolete? In Suncor’s bid to acquire more such vehicles for its oil sands operations in Alberta, the net fallout will be 400 lost jobs. Further, in a Report assessing the impact of driverless trucks farther afield in Australian surface mining operations, the authors caution that “ The social implications of greater mine site automation are the reduction in population of remote mining towns and a decrease in the lower skilled labour requirements for the mining sector. There will be an increase in fly-in fly-out mining operations and companies will establish remote control centres for automated mines in larger cities. This may decrease overall labour requirements and so reduce employment in the sector; therefore, the government should be mindful of implementing policies that ensure a fair return on the economic rent of mineral leases.”
But to borrow a maxim from modern science’s founding father, Sir Isaac Newton, that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” a modified version of this principle relevant today might read: “For every social and economic deterrent that technology brings in its wake, there are equally sound benefits.” True, autonomous trucks render drivers obsolete. True, drivers that normally might become part of small communities in remote mining areas are replaced by technicians – experts possibly removed from the mine site and the neighbouring communities in which they may have otherwise resided.
Yet the benefits are nonetheless persuasive. The Australian Report noted above states that previously unprofitable mines may now operate in the black. “While there will be fewer jobs per mine, with reduced costs and higher productivity some previously uneconomic mines may again be profitable,” it states.
Indeed, IAM Gold’s Cote Project Manager Steven Bowles confirmed as much in his comments at the Big Event Mine Expo held this year. “The economics of having less labour involved in the mine really helped us secure the business case for Cote.”
To be sure, few would argue against the employment of autonomous vehicles in the case of the Cote Project at Gogama. Currently there are scant employment opportunities for local residents and for the indigenous people at the Mattagami Reserve just north of Gogama. That will change as the mine prepares to hire some 1,200 workers for start-up operations over the course of two years, and a full complement of 400-plus permanent workers through the mine’s life cycle.
If technology, namely driverless vehicles in this case, contributes to the Cote Project’s viability, then are we prepared to overlook some of the disadvantages in the wake of much larger economic and social benefits? We think so!☚