After success in commercial trials, Suncor is to expand its use of autonomous haulage trucks at its North Steepbank Extension mine
If the conventional oil and gas industry is concerned with efficiency, Canada’s oil sands producers are fixated on it. While projects looked to make decent returns at US$100+ oil, the prolonged hold at around US$50 means the sector is in need of radical change.
One of the most interesting ideas put forth in this drive for cost-efficiency has come from Suncor. Since 2014, the company has been trialling the use of six autonomous haulage systems (AHS) at its North Steepbank Extension mine in Alberta – and the results have been so successful it now intends to roll out 150 AHS across its sites over the next six years. The company says the programme will form one of the largest investments in electric autonomous vehicles in the world.
Suncor’s trial has been conducted in collaboration with Komatsu, the Japan-based manufacturer of dump trucks and other mining equipment. Several of the company’s diesel-electric drive 930E models have been outfitted with autonomous drive systems, which pair sensors on the dump truck with GPS location data. Trucks follow pre-programmed routes around the mine, with oversight and control from a central operations room. Weighing over 400 tonnes, they can carry payloads of up to 230 tonnes and can reach a top speed of 40 mph.
Other equipment such as bulldozers and shovels will remain under human control, but will be able to interact safely with them when moving earth around the site. Features such as prescribed route mapping and obstacle detection systems mean that the AHS should keep reduce the exposure and risk to human operators working around large equipment. "Safety is our number one value at Suncor. AHS reduce interaction between people and equipment, which decreases incident rates and injury potential – helping us ensure everyone goes home safely at the end of every day," said Suncor CEO Mark Little.
Moreover, Suncor says the use of AHS will also offer “better operating efficiency and lower operating costs.” "Suncor was the first company to transition from bucketwheel to truck and shovel operations in the early 1990s and we're continuing to be on the leading edge of oil sands technologies today," added Little. “To be the very first company to test these systems and implement them at a commercial scale in our oil sands mining operations speaks to our long history of embracing and implementing game-changing technologies – it's simply part of our DNA.”
Mining for margins
The technology has been deployed in other mining operations before, including in Australia’s Pilbara by Rio Tinto and in Chile. In the case of Rio Tinto, the use of retrofitted AHS allowed trucks to operate an additional 1,000 hours and at 15% lower load and haul unit cost than conventional units. Retrofitting a further 29 vehicles at its Brockman 4 iron ore mine will deliver the company an additional US$500 million of free cash flow annually from 2021, the mining firm said.
Similar productivity gains will enable better returns for the oil sands too. According to a Bloomberg report last year, new innovations in production techniques – including enhanced oil recovery (EOR) programmes which use radio waves or propane injection to boost output – have enabled Suncor and fellow oil sands producer Cenovus to produce at US$40 per barrel, without harming their dividends. The use of AHS will no doubt support that efficiency drive, although a Suncor spokesperson told InnovOil that it was too soon to say what the direct cost-savings would be.
However, the change will have some impact on the company’s workforce. Suncor has signalled its intention to change roles and re-skill haulage drivers at its operations – but said that it would see a decrease in heavy equipment operator positions at Base Plant operations as of 2019. “Taking a staged approach to deployment will allow the company to deliberately focus on each mine and apply lessons from one to the next,” it added.