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The Seats May be Empty but the Work is Getting Done

The Seats May be Empty but the Work is Getting Done

July 7, 2017 4:23 PM | Posted by David Pearce, Andrew Orford and Hazal Gacka | Print this page

Automation in the Australian resources sector continues to push ahead with a trial of driverless bulldozers at a Queensland coal mine. Wolff Group, Hastings Deering and Caterpillar are leading an 18-month trial of the remotely controlled machines. BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue have already invested in driverless trucks and locomotives, as well as automated drilling rigs, however, Wolff Group managing director Terry Wolff sees the driverless bulldozers as 'a game changer for the mining sector.'

The three semiautonomous Cat D11T machines, to be used in the open cut mine near Blackwater in Central Queensland will be ''driven'' by an operator in a remote control room. Cameras mounted on the bulldozers will relay vision to an operator sitting in a mobile control room using an exact replica of the vehicle's controls. The operator will be able to control up to four bulldozers at one time. A fail-safe system will allow the driverless machines to be immediately shut down in an emergency. The machines are also "crash-proof" and will "talk" to each other using horns.

The equipment has been previously tested in research trial conditions at Black Thunder Mine at Wyoming. The first efficiency results are due in six to seven months.

The introduction of autonomous fleets will require mine owners to update and adapt their safety systems to ensure they continue to discharge their statutory safety duties and provide safe work places. Industrial relations management will also need to be carefully managed, given obvious concerns regarding workforce reductions as drivers are replaced with multi-vehicle remote operators (and a potential future transition to vehicles which are fully autonomous, requiring no human control).

Procurement teams will also need to consider how they manage existing fleet arrangements to take advantage of potentially game changing technology developments in the years ahead. The nature of purchase or hire arrangements for autonomous vehicles will also need to be considered. Hire agreements are likely to require a blend of principles from 'wet' and 'dry' hire terms, and both supply and hire contracts may require an increased emphasis on issues relating to intellectual property, training, data security and cyber security. Clients may also want to tailor contractual performance guarantees to ensure the promised benefits from the new technology are delivered.

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