When the team at Hexagon Mining reached out to say they were working on a new solution based around autonomous connected ecosystems (ACE), I naturally had to find out more.
CL: What is an autonomous connected ecosystem (ACE)?
MB: An ACE is about achieving a seamless connection across all parts of a process through the convergence of the physical world with the digital. It uses artificial intelligence to generate value across the chain and where the intelligence is built-in to all processes, not only in single machines.
In a short, an ACE allows autonomous machines to connect and communicate with each other to move from autonomation of a single task to automation of a complete process. Adding AI on top expands the capabilities and value of the initial process.
What technology is required to create this kind of environment?
In order to create an ACE, multiple layers of technologies are required. It varies depending on the process and its complexity but, as standard, an ACE would include: AI/machine learning, cloud orchestration, edge computing, communications networks, augmented and virtual reality, hardware and software integration.
Are ACEs already being used (at commercial scale) in the mining sector? Where did the concept originate from?
They are starting to be used in the mining sector, mainly in autonomous haulage with some input from the workforce, also in some parts of the production plant, mills and ports. But we are not yet using ACEs to their full potential since there are still many human interventions and a lack of machine-to-machine communication across complete mining operations.
The concept of an ACE in autonomous haulage comes from the automotive industry, but ACEs actually originated in manufacturing and geospatial automation. Automation has been in place in those industries for many years now and the technology is maturing at a much faster pace there than in mining.
Could you give some examples of how ACEs could work within a mining operation and the benefits they could deliver?
A simple example is the idea of not only using automation to drive heavy machinery from point A to B and to improve safety and performance, but also to connect those machines to the overall load and haul process; for example, to the rest of the fleet, light vehicles and other infrastructure to optimise their interaction and improve the overall process, not just material transportation.
Another example is connecting unmanned vehicles, manned vehicles and the supporting safety systems in their surroundings, for instance slope monitoring systems, to avoid potential safety risks like slope deformation. Risk alerts can be automatically transmitted through the ACE from the slope monitoring system to both manned and unmanned vehicles in real time and without any human intervention to allow timely decisions to be made by the operators.
Is it possible to incorporate machines and technologies from multiple manufacturers into such an ecosystem? Are there any limitations?
We believe that all different technologies and machinery providers will be able to bring their strengths to an ACE and levering the best-of-breed AI on top of that will help the systems to adapt to the specifics of the processes. It will allow the ACEs to become a reality without any functional barriers. It is easy to say but hard to achieve, with enormous limitations on setting the right standards and the right technology development for the correct use cases.
But technology is not the only limiting factor; the ability of people to leverage this technology and make the process changes necessary to optimise its value is a big challenge.
Recognising this fact, Hexagon’s digital transformation practice works as much on the soft side, looking at skills and competencies, doing risk mitigation, getting executive buy-in, and developing organisational confidence in the change process and its results.
How do you see ACEs changing the way we operate mines, both short and long term?
In the short term, they will help mines to optimise small ecosystems that works in silos such as haulage, drill and blast, and mineral processing.
In the future, they will help with automation of the overall value chain ecosystem from extraction, production and processing all the way to the port, shipping and transactional results. They will help to drive the efficiency in the initial part of the process based on the current market price and demand.