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Smart Minds in Mines

March 3, 2022

One afternoon, Nathaniel Gibson saw something he’ll never forget. In fact, it only validated his career decision to transition from a HET (heavy equipment technician), in which he assembled and repaired autonomous trucks, to an AHS (autonomous haulage systems) application trainer—connecting people to an evolving technical world.

“It was the first time I saw a truck being loaded by a shovel in the mine. It backed in on its own, and it was precisely where it needed to be,” says Gibson. “It’s the awe of seeing the truck with no driver—of course, it’s working as you expect it to, but that excitement never goes away.”
And there’s a lot to be excited about. According to Gibson, integrating autonomous systems in mining “is the way of the future, and we’re only growing from where we are.” He and other AHS trainers are a critical part of the chain, with all systems coming together to innovate mines, improve safety, reduce costs, and enhance productivity, and efficiency. The results certainly speak for themselves, but what about the human perspective of trucks that have, well, no humans in them?

One word: trust. In Gibson’s world, the human element springs out of the heightened safety autonomy brings. “Our whole system—thanks to the people behind it—tells us exactly where the truck is going to drive. We can always see exactly where we are in relation to that truck,” he says. “All of the information continuously goes back and forth. It makes you feel a whole lot safer being out there, because you are.”

Gibson’s favourite part of training new people is seeing their trust in the system grow too. The comment he gets from new trainees the most? “I can’t believe that truck is driving without someone in the cab.” 

And then, a shift happens. 

“I don’t want to say we all get to this point, but you do notice you get a little more cautious around human-operated equipment,” explains Gibson. “With autonomous, we can tell every single move that a truck is going to make. With human-operated equipment, that’s simply a whole lot harder to gauge.” 

After all, the people operating machines have their way of thinking and unique problem-solving skills and perspectives. We can guess those thoughts but never truly predict them. AHS removes those unknowns; it does exactly what we tell it to do. This predictability is a significant factor—if not the most critical—in enhancing overall mine safety. 

That’s why Gibson’s goal is to ensure he helps trainees work seamlessly within the system, so they fully understand it and ultimately are safer in their jobs. He trains SMS Equipment technicians—electricians, mechanics and supervisors to ensure we have the skills to support our customers continued growth of AHS technology. SMS Equipment technicians play a vital role in keeping the autonomous trucks moving by providing maintenance, repairs and daily inspection of these specialized systems. 

“As technicians, we verify that everything is working as expected with a daily inspection. For instance, radar on the trucks—that’s what detects if there’s something on the road—is checked every day for safe operation in case something were to jump out in front of this truck,” says Gibson. The training he offers is centred on effectively explaining how the truck does what it does. 

Even though Gibson is early in his career, he’s been successfully involved in heavy-duty equipment for more than half his life. But does he wish he got straight into AHS training before his experience of assembling trucks? 

Not at all. 

“You simply need to understand the service side before getting technical,” Gibson observes. “From putting trucks together to seeing them run—you can connect the two seamlessly.”

 

Gibson’s strong knowledge base comes from his experience as an HET. He troubleshot specific circuits and learned Komatsu’s FrontRunner platform (the system that communicates to the truck how to drive). “It’s about a point A to point B configuration. With FrontRunner, we run completely autonomously and create the actual map that allows the truck to drive within the set environment.” 

Back then, Gibson also contributed to creating reports submitted to Komatsu with the information gathered from the machines. “Essentially, FrontRunner creates observations, improvements are made, and the team gets the update through the system from Komatsu,” explains Gibson. In his training role today, Gibson submits tickets with Modular Specialists concerning elements in the field that could improve

But most of all, as an AHS trainer, Gibson confidently signs off that someone is competent. “I spend time with that person from the beginning, when they are in awe of a truck operating on its own for the first time—all the way through to a point when I can take my hands off and let them do everything on their own,” he says. “Just like teaching someone to ride a bike!”

In Canada, autonomous equipment is still a relatively new concept. “AHS is the future,” says Gibson. “When we can operate safer, we can operate more efficiently.” And even though that means transitioning away from people in trucks, many new roles are being created that support safer, more productive, and more sustainable mining operations. The skills required are highly technical, but with an eagerness to learn, the invitation of expertise is wide open for people who want to be part of the autonomous movement.

Look at Gibson. From bolting on truck parts to connecting with people to teach them about a safer technology, he’s a perfect example that the conversation is still—and will always be—about how people and their involvement will determine just how far we can go with mining technology.


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KOMTRAX Plus for mining equipment is Komatsu’s remote equipment health monitoring system, allowing mine operators to track equipment performance over time and configure analytics capable of alerting you on equipment issues. 

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Komatsu continues to build on a 30-year history of trolley-assist innovation. Partnering with essential support networks such as SMS Equipment provides the building blocks and turnkey solutions for unique mining operations. As a mining technology leaders and program deployment specialists, we can ensure support of your mine from feasibility analysis to program implementation and execution.

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