As the pace of robotic integration into the modern workforce continues to increase, automatons are finding their way into an ever wider variety of industries. Already making an impact in the agricultural sector, automatons are now poised to perform the task of driving massive, house-sized mining trucks—a job once held only by highly-skilled and highly-paid human drivers.
Everything about modern mining operations is massive, including the cost to keep these mines running. One significant expense comes from the often six-figure salaries that heavy equipment operators require. Not that they don't earn it—you try driving a house-sized truck loaded with tons of rubble up a narrow canyon rim barely wider than the wheelbase—but the cost of employing a large number of skilled operators gets expensive fast, especially when you also factor in the cost of housing them and their families in the remote locations where oil sand fields tend to occur. But for Canadian oil sands giant Suncor Energy, "Canada’s largest energy company by market value" according a Bloomberg report, the answer might be to get get rid of the drivers altogether.
See, getting oil from sand is just slightly more efficient that getting blood from a stone. You have to dredge up two tons of sand to squeeze out a single barrel's worth of bitumen. That means lots of excavating and even more hauling to get it to the extraction plant. But the faster these trucks make the loop from mine to extraction plant and back, the more cost effective the process becomes. And the easiest way to do that is to make the trucks run themselves nonstop. According to John Meech, a mining engineering professor at the University of British Columbia that spoke to Bloomberg, doing so could carve as much as 15 percent off of Suncor's operating costs.
At Suncor Energy's open pit Steepbank mine north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, at least one automated heavy hauler—similar to the unit Komatsu sells below—has already begun operating as part of a limited test. Instead of a driver, the massive truck relies on an array of wireless networks, laser rangefinders and GPS tracking to stay on course.
"The engineering tests are the first of several steps to determine if the autonomous hauling system would work for Suncor," Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal told the Fort McMurray Today. "It is more than just a truck."
However, the company stressed that the trial run was only a preliminary one, and any large-scale automation changes were at least a few years away. In fact, there's actually a shortage of skilled drivers in Fort McMurray (shocking, I know), so if you think you have the chops for it—chops being the requisite work experience and technical training—they're hiring. [Bloomberg - Vice - Ft McMurray Times]