The technology being tested and refined at Boliden involves autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles that can bring significant safety benefits. Over the next year and a half, self-driving Volvo FMX trucks will be tested in regular operations at Kristineberg. The aim is to examine how this technology can contribute to safe and productive transportation in tough geographically limited application areas.
The self-driving truck is part of a development project aimed at improving the transport flow and safety in the mine. The truck will cover a distance of 7km, reaching 1,320m underground in the narrow mine tunnels.
Peter Burman, who is responsible for Boliden’s mine automation programme, said: “We have a technology that allows our employees to stay at a safe distance, which provides a better working environment.”
Modern mines are becoming increasingly digitised. In a few years, autonomous and remote-controlled machines will be a clear element of work. Boliden is currently conducting an initiative to develop automation in mines, in the format of a cross-functional programme involving employees from Boliden, together with external parties such as Volvo, Ericsson, Atlas Copco and ABB.
Torbjörn Holmström, member of the Volvo Group executive board and Volvo Group chief technology officer, said: “This is the world’s first fully self-driving truck to operate under such tough conditions. It is a true challenge to ensure that everything works meticulously more than 1,300m underground.”
Volvo Trucks stated that when it unveiled its autonomous Volvo FMX earlier this year, it attracted considerable interest in the industry. The research and development project of which this truck is a part reveals that self-driving trucks may offer a significant contribution to increased transport efficiency and productivity. In particular, they could have benefits in mines, ports and other geographically limited and well-controlled environments with a large proportion of repetitive driving.
Volvo was in contact with many mining areas throughout the world, including Canada and South Africa, to find the best possible place for live testing.
Christian Grante, technical specialist automation within the Volvo Group, explained: “The choice fell on Boliden and Kristineberg mine, because you showed tremendous commitment and expertise in automation.”
With the trucks being used in Boliden's operations, Volvo can determine the final adjustments needed and can also perform them in place and test immediately. Johan Tofeldt, Volvo's project manager, commented: “It is extremely valuable to us.”
Kristineberg is where the very first self-driving Volvo FMX truck will become operational this autumn; over the coming year, the operation will gradually increase to include another three such vehicles.
Claes Nilsson, president at Volvo Trucks, said: “Through our cooperation with Boliden, the development of autonomous vehicles is entering an exciting new phase. This is the first time ever that self-driving trucks are being tested in regular operations underground, and the results will provide valuable input to our ongoing mission to transform technical breakthroughs into practical customer benefits.”
The vehicles used in the mine are series-built Volvo FMX trucks equipped with new functionality. Among other things, they include a system incorporating radar/laser-based sensors. This system is initially used to monitor the mine's geometry and to generate a map of the route that the truck has to traverse. The collected information is then used to regulate the vehicle's steering, gear changes and speed. On every new trip, the sensors are used to continuously scan the area around the truck and further optimise both the operation and the route.
The technology used in the autonomous trucks makes it possible to optimise logistics in the mine in an entirely different way than currently possible. The trucks can operate continuously, and thanks to precise route planning and steady speed there is no congestion and it is possible to cut loading and unloading times. During blasting operations, drivers must usually wait until the mine gallery has been ventilated before the ore can be loaded, but with self-driving trucks there are no such restrictions. This means that each truck can be utilised more efficiently and can carry out more transport assignments per shift. The vehicles can become an integrated part of the mine's overall production system. Smoother transport flow and steadier speeds are also accompanied by lower fuel consumption and less wear and tear.
Volvo stated that an autonomous truck must be at least as safe and reliable as a manually driven truck. If an obstacle appears near the truck, the vehicle stops automatically and the transport management centre is alerted. Of the six sensors included in the system, there are always two that monitor the same part of the truck's surroundings. If a fault occurs with the truck, it can be remotely operated from the transport management centre.
Tests involving self-driving vehicles are among several research and development projects in which Volvo is examining the scope for making trucks more autonomous. Several of the systems found in today's Volvo trucks, such as adaptive cruise control (ACC), work towards the same goal. The company said that thanks to today's fast pace of technological development, the market will see more and more solutions that offer ever greater degrees of driver support. Self-driving trucks may gradually become an important complement in mining operations, for instance, but for transport operations on public roads the driver will continue to play the major role.