Used as a testing ground within Agnico Eagle’s larger LaRonde Mining Complex, LaRonde Zone 5 (LZ5) has been testing Sandvik’s AutoMine platform since 2018. Nicholas Kenny talks to Luc Girard, mining operations superintendent at LZ5 for Agnico Eagle, and David Hallett, vice-president of automation at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, about Sandvik’s AutoMine solution and how the AutoMine Concept Vehicle is being used to showcase its vision of the future of mining automation and digitalisation.

Back in 2018, a new kind of mining technology was brought into operation at the LaRonde Complex, located in the Abitibi region of north-western Quebec, Canada – specifically, in the LaRonde Zone 5 (LZ5) mine.

The whole mining complex is owned and operated by Agnico Eagle, and the main LaRonde mine is the company’s oldest operating mine, achieving commercial production in 1988.

LZ5 was acquired by Agnico Eagle in 2003, based just to the west of the main mine, and achieved commercial production as an underground operation on 1 June 2018, with ore processed at the LaRonde Complex’s processing facilities.

The LZ5 site has been used since then to trial new technologies, as it did in 2018, when Sandvik’s AutoMine system was implemented to introduce autonomous vehicles to the mine’s operations. Bringing to mind self-driving Teslas, Amazon drone swarms or militarised robots, ‘automation’ is the very watchword of the future. Few sectors have more to gain from this technology than the mining industry.

Adoption has grown steadily in the past few years – in 2019, a year after LZ5 began implementing the AutoMine system, Market Research Future valued the global mining automation industry at $2.31bn. By 2025, the market value is expected to reach $4.03bn.

An engineering group involved in mining and rock excavation, rock processing, metal cutting and materials technology, Sandvik’s AutoMine platform is the world-leading solution for fully autonomous operation for underground trucks and loaders.

With over three million hours of continuous operation, the system is used by more than 600 vehicles on 75 different sites around the world. The technology enables trucks and loaders to autonomously navigate a mine in full production cycles, and during shift changes and blast clearance times. It can also be used to control a fleet of drill rigs for surface drilling operations.

On-site autonomy

These reasons and others drew Angico Eagle into considering automation for LZ5’s operations. “We started evaluating the different automation opportunities [for LZ5] in 2015,” says Luc Girard, mining operations superintendent at LZ5 for Agnico Eagle. Even by 2017, however, automation was still ruled out as an option for the site, “because it was a little mine with low tonnage, low grade”.

By 2018, though, the cost of automation had dropped to a point where Agnico Eagle could implement it, which they did with promising results. However, there were initially some teething issues. Since the LZ5 site was not originally intended to be automated, it only had one ramp, rather than the two required for seamless automation.

This meant that they couldn’t use automated equipment at the same time as manual equipment, with people out on the ground. The choice, then, was to either close the mine while automation was in use, or to isolate the automated equipment to a section of the mine people would be kept away from.

Girard and his team’s first step was to muck a stope with a scoop and load a truck in the loading bay, before allowing the truck to automatically return at the surface. Two barriers were then put in place: one to isolate the automated equipment – the truck and scoop – and the other for the human-driven truck, with the two vehicles never entering the area at the same time.

Since that first step, Agnico Eagle has implemented a range of automated technologies at LZ5. “We are the first mine to have an automated run – the truck coming from underground to the surface automatically,” says Girard, with a hint of satisfaction.

A 4G LTE cellular signal is present throughout the underground mine, a first in the Canadian mining industry, which boosts the mine’s automation abilities. In the three years since LZ5 introduced the AutoMine system, the site’s automated fleet has grown from a single loader working on an isolated stope to four Sandvik LH517i loaders and six Sandvik TH551i trucks.

“We are the first mine to have an automated run – the truck coming from underground to the surface automatically.” Luc Girard, LZ5 for Agnico Eagle

Key to the success of LZ5’s implementation of automated technology has been the close relationship between the site and the developer of the technology. “It’s really a collaboration between us and Sandvik, since the beginning,” says Girard. “They work for us, we work for them,” he adds.

This collaborative approach has allowed LZ5 to operate their automated systems efficiently and with confidence, and Girard speaks passionately about the mining site’s plans for the future, including implementing its first automated drill in 2022. By 2023 or 2024, he hopes that 30% or so of the mine’s operations will be fully automated,
and from there the sky’s the limit.

A step ahead

While Agnico Eagle may have begun looking into automation in 2015, Sandvik’s journey truly took off in 2004, with its first customer sale. However, the development of its automation technology began back in the late 1990s.

Today, Sandvik is able to implement a wide range of automated mining equipment, offering a number of key benefits to the industry. The most important is safety, one of Sandvik’s core focuses. In 2016, Sandvik had an industry-low lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFR) record of 0.7 for its mining services operations, with fewer than one injury per million hours worked.

“We saw a need in the industry to start to move more towards automation,” explains David Hallett, vice-president of automation at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions. The company was seeing growing interest in automation from some of the early adopters moving from manually operated mechanised mobile equipment, and decided to get ahead of the field, beginning development of its own technology.

“I think that’s given us a pretty good head start on our competitors, at least – it’s given us an advantage to be able to have a lot of know-how learnings in this space over the years.”

Well, small acorns into mighty oak trees grow, and in some ways the culmination of Sandvik’s decades of work can be witnessed in its AutoMine Concept Vehicle. As the world’s first fully autonomous underground mining machine built specifically for automation, the vehicle exists to demonstrate the company’s vision of the future.

“The whole purpose behind the AutoMine Concept Vehicle is that we wanted to showcase our technology and vision of what mining in the future will look like,” explains Hallett. “So, in addition to automation, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that it’s a cabinless, fully battery electric loader as well – it’s a unique machine in that aspect.”

On top of those features, the vehicle is also equipped with the latest sensor technology for 3D environment sensing and detection, and uses artificial intelligence for self-planning and adapting as the environmental conditions around it change.

“Automated bucket filling and automatic path planning are the two key features that allow for increased production and quick set-up into new working areas, which adds to the flexibility of the solution,” Hallett adds.

He also highlights that the AutoMine Concept Vehicle’s on-board self-contained safety system provides quick obstacle detection and avoidance capabilities, allowing the vehicle to work alongside people without the need of installing isolation barriers.

Autonomous operations

As the AutoMine Concept Vehicle highlights, Sandvik sees automation technology at the heart of the future of mining. “Autonomous robots operating in harmony together with manual equipment and also people, and doing that safely,” Hallett explains. “And that’s the key thing with [the AutoMine Concept Vehicle].”

The inability of current technologies to provide such an operation is among the main issues present at LZ5, as Girard mentioned, with autonomous operations being isolated from the rest of the mine, by necessity, in order to maintain a safe environment for workers.

“When we look at automation, it’s bound by the fact that you have to separate manual equipment and people from the autonomous activity by barriers,” Hallett notes. “So that has to then involve a certain level of change in management at the mine site, to be able to shift from a mode where you’re operating and manually, to [being] fully autonomous in those areas.”

“Autonomous robots operating in harmony together with manual equipment and also people [is the] key thing.” David Hallett, Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions

That has historically posed a problem to Sandvik too, though the company has seen positive gains with the technology in static environments such as block caving, point-to-point, or transfer-level trucking.

However, when dealing with open stoping, for example – which is where Sandvik has carried out the majority of its deliveries – that’s where you need a high level of adaptability, which is what the AutoMine Concept Vehicle was designed to address. “Stoping is a very dynamic mining sequence,” Hallett explains.

“You have manual activities ongoing in the same area together with the loading material from the stopes. So, it requires a higher level of flexibility and adaptability of the automation solution.”

When designing the AutoMine Concept Vehicle, the key challenge that Sandvik faced was creating a for-purpose, automated solution that would be robust enough to withstand the kind of environmental conditions that exist in underground mining – while ensuring that it has a functionally safe machine that can operate alongside manual equipment and people.

Learn and grow

“Safety is first and foremost – our priority number one. We need to ensure the safety of the workers – that’s critical,” Hallett emphasises. In order to provide that, autonomous vehicles need to be able to withstand the demands of underground mining, and what’s more, they maintain consistent performance in the face of any challenge.

“It’s a very repetitive type of cycle that you see, day in and day out – the machines go through hell. You need to have then sensing technologies on-board that are purpose built and able to withstand those conditions.”

From a user perspective too, automation can pose challenges. “Automation is not easy. And normally people may think that through automation, an operation will be easier, but it’s not like that,” says Girard. Before bringing automation into a mine, operators need to be committed to the path, because while the technology can be a huge boost to a site, it needs to be implemented and operated with care and constant communication.

At the same time, while younger miners might be drawn to the technology, Girard has noticed that older ones, with established decades-long careers, have proved more hesitant, due in part to having less familiarity with computers and the kind of technology involved.

However, after few weeks of operation and training, he’s found that experienced workers quickly develop an interest in the technology and are soon able to operate the system just as their younger colleagues do.

Similarly, automation can add in complications when replacing or repairing equipment and vehicle parts. A new tire, for example, could throw off the LiDAR by a few key centimetres, so mine operators need to be careful to recalibrate equipment in such cases.

Path to the future

However, LZ5 has also seen a number of benefits through implementing automation across its operations, the foremost being, in Girard’s eyes, the ability to operate during the four hours each day between shift changes.

It now uses automation to carry out the blasting and gas clearance processes. For the first ten months of 2021, the site was able to generate an extra $10m in revenue, representing 8–10% more tonnage.

And even beyond the financial benefits, automation holds considerable attraction within the industry for other reasons as well. Girard notes that since implementing automation in LZ5’s operations, they’ve seen considerable interest in younger miners who want to be involved, who see new opportunities in the technology.

“We’ve put a lot of energy into the development of the technology, but we are having good results. Our corporate office is always asking about automation […] because they see the energy we put in the project. And now the benefits we see are from that energy put into development.”

Hallett is similarly enthused, and takes particular interest in developments in automation in other industries, which feed back into the work he and his team are doing. These advancements, and the growth of the technology across the board, only solidify his opinions on the value that automation poses for the mining industry.

“The future is going to be […] automated equipment, operating in harmony together with light vehicles and people in a safe manner,” Hallett says, but notes that this is only one aspect of Sandvik’s vision of the future of mining. While automation will play a key part, there are other areas that will help push the sector forward.

“If we look at mining in the future, it is going to be electrified, it’s going to be automated, it’s going to be data driven, with analytics, and then it’s also going to be sustainable,” he says. “Those are the four core areas that we see playing a key role in the mine of the future.”

This article originally appeared in World Mining Frontiers magazine winter 2021.