A Caterpillar 793F mining truck, with nearly 2,500 net horsepower and a payload capacity of 250 tons, rolls into the loading area, stops just beyond a giant Cat hydraulic mining shovel, then expertly backs under the shovel for loading. You notice a cylinder-like device spinning rapidly in front of the grille—almost before noticing yet a more unusual feature: the 793F is driver-less.
The spinning cylinder is part of the autonomous 793F’s Lidar system, which measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light, measuring the reflected pulse with sensors, then using the data to generate a 3D representation of the target. Lidar is part of the 793F’s autonomous control system, which, for example, can bring the truck to a stop if it encounters an obstacle in its path, direct the truck to the least-busy crusher, or coordinate truck traffic to get the proper blend of material through a crusher.
As the truck is being loaded, a pressure sensor in each wheel’s suspension sends weight data to the shovel operator, who uses the information to adjust the load for equal weight over each tire. Even loading means equal tire temperatures as the truck works, enabling faster haul speeds.
At present, Caterpillar has more than 70 autonomous trucks working in mines worldwide, and the company expects to have nearly 100 in service by year’s end. The further plan is to have autonomous systems available for more Cat mining truck models, as well as to develop retrofit packages for competitive truck models.
The autonomous truck is an impressive aspect of Caterpillar’s mining technology, but the company’s expertise extends well beyond driver-less vehicles.
At a recent event at its Tinaja Hills Demonstration and Learning Center (near Tucson, Ariz.), Caterpillar hosted a group of trade journalists involved in the mining and construction-equipment industries. Sean McGinnis, product manager, Caterpillar Mining Technology, told those assembled that Caterpillar advises its customers, “Don’t confuse enthusiasm with experience; the ability to demonstrate capability is a key issue.”
The point, said McGinnis, is that Caterpillar just doesn’t just talk a good game when working with mine operators to achieve productivity gains, optimum on-site safety, and cost-reductions—but has the resources, expertise, and experience to help miners accomplish those goals.
Craig Watkins, sales support, Caterpillar Mining Technology, concisely sums up the company’s work with mining firms: “We understand that our customers are looking for consistency across their operations, reductions in cost, and getting the maximum output from all of their assets. Caterpillar is committed to helping them use Cat technologies to achieve those goals, often working in conjunction with the right technology partners to ensure those goals are accomplished across the mine site and across the mining enterprise.”
At the meeting with journalists, in fact, Caterpillar invited a number of its technology partners, including Michael Fleming, CEO, TORC Robotics, a firm that works with Caterpillar to develop autonomous equipment; Nathan Pugh, Trimble’s director of mining, who outlined Trimble’s Connected Mine solution for collecting and integrating data from from varied sources throughout the mining operation; and Michele McGovern, CEO, Alight Mining Solutions, which works to assist mining executives to assess the financial impact of anticipated actions.
In addition, says Bill Dears, commercial manager, Caterpillar Mining Technology, the company also maintains working relationships with universities (Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech, the Colorado School of Mines, for example), as well as with enterprise-integration companies and regulatory agencies in an effort to assemble all the necessary resources for improving mining operations.
“Caterpillar goes to the mining industry with an integrated approach,” says Watkins. “It’s a matter of attacking every cost. The needs of customers continually pull us forward to find solutions.”
Caterpillar’s fundamental mine-management system is Cat MineStar, which includes a number of technologies that the company identifies as Fleet, Terrain, Detect, Health, and Command.
Fleet provides an overview of all operations with real-time machine/material tracking and productivity management; Terrain helps manage drilling, grading, and loading operations through the use of advanced guidance technology; Detect enhances the operator’s job-site awareness with cameras, radar, and proximity warning systems; Health provides machine-condition data to identify equipment problems before failure; and Command allows for remote control, semi-autonomous operation, or fully autonomous operation of mining equipment.
Dan Hellige, sales manager, Caterpillar Mining Technology, makes the point that the company continually refines MineStar technologies to increase “inter-operability,” “usability,” and “scale-ability”—that is, making them applicable to fleets with machines other than Caterpillar, making them easier for mine operators to use, and allowing them to be tailored (scaled) to the needs of mining operations of all sizes.
According to Caterpillar’s Jean Savage, vice president of Surface Mining & Technology, the company has opened a new Surface Mining & Technology Division office in the Tucson area, staffed at present with some 240 Caterpillar mining experts. A new, permanent headquarters is under construction in Tucson and is scheduled to be operational March 2019, eventually with a staff of more than 600.
“Innovation increases,” says Savage, “when diverse experts in the mining industry are brought together to share ideas in a setting that places them close to the equipment (at Caterpillar’s Tucson Proving Grounds) that mining operations need for efficient production.”