Canadian oil sands giant testing autonomous haul trucks

The vast boreal forests of northern Alberta, Canada contain some of the largest oil sands mines in the world. While many of the operations have become in-situ – where the viscous, tarry substance known as bitumen is melted with steam and pumped back to the surface – a good number of them are open-pit mines, where operators rely on gigantic haul trucks and mining shovels to unearth and transport the sticky oil sands for eventual processing into crude oil.

The Canadian oil sands then are an ideal training ground for autonomous haul trucks, which work best in assembly-line style operations where trucks move in a continuous production cycle. No surprise then, that Suncor (TSX:SUN) has become the first Canadian oil sands operator to test an autonomous haulage system (AHS).

The largest Canadian oil sands producer confirmed last week it has embarked on a one-year pilot project involving the use of six 400-tonne Komatsu autonomous haulers in an isolated part of Suncor's mine site in northern Alberta.

"These newly improved machines don't suddenly design, manufacture, train, maintain or fix themselves"

In development since 1990, the Japanese company first introduced an AHS truck in 2008 and says since then it has hauled over a billion tonnes of overburden and ore at large mines in Chile and Australia.

"Front Runner [the name of Komatsu's AHS] is designed to achieve a safer, more reliable and cost-effective workflow, without taking over the entire operation," narrates a promotional video by Komatsu. "This large-scale, non-stop haulage system helps traditional, manually-operated equipment and light-duty vehicles to operate safely and efficiently alongside a fleet of Komatsu autonomous haul trucks."

Suncor tells CBC News the trucks can be used with or without a driver, and that no timeline or final approach has yet been established for the project. The public broadcaster honed in on the potential for an AHS system to displace truck drivers, quoting a union president saying that each autonomous vehicle will kill about five jobs, and that the technology has the potential to put 1,000 workers, or 30 percent of the workforce, on the dole.

However Komatsu counters that the trucks will actually create new, higher-tech positions: "These newly improved machines don't suddenly design, manufacture, train, maintain or fix themselves," said company spokesman Raleigh Floyd Jr.

The use of an AHS by Suncor is part of larger shift towards increased automation in mining, both on surface and below ground.

Just over a year ago Rio Tinto (ASX, NYSE, LON:RIO) rolled out the world's first fully driver-less mines, announcing that haul trucks at its Yandicoogina and Nammuldi mines are being controlled through an operations centre in Perth 1,200 kilometres away. The trucks run 24/7, every day of the year and each truck is estimated to save around 500 work hours annually.

Back in 2011 Mining.com reported on Rio Tinto reaching a deal with Komatsu to buy 150 driverless truck over the next four years. At the time Rio said the vehicles will increase productivity by hauling more material quicker. Three years later, BHP Billiton completed a trial of Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT) driverless trucks at its coal mine in New Mexico, and in 2013 started using autonomous haulers on a trial basis at its Jimblebar iron ore mine in the Pilbara.

In 2013 Fortescue Metals Group (ASX: FMG) also installed Cat autonomous trucks at its Solomon mine in Western Australia. The world's largest heavy equipment manufacturer has a complete line of high-tech autonomous mining equipment, including driverless dozers and haulers.

In 2014 when BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) opened the Jimblebar iron ore mine, the opening coincided with an announcement that BHP would expand its driverless truck fleet from the six Caterpillar 793F autonomous trucks being trialed at Jimblebar since 2013, with another six to be tested at its neighbouring Wheelarra operation.