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Technology and the human factor

August 18, 2023
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No mine can be completely free of human error, but with proper systems in place, consequences can be minimized in most cases. In this edition of Experts Corner, Scott Schellenberg, Senior Manager of Smart Mining Solutions at SMS Equipment, explains how smart mining equipment can complement human intelligence to make mines safer and more productive.

What are some of the human weaknesses that we have to work around in mining?

What are some of the human weaknesses that we have to work around in mining?

Scott: Unfortunately, humans have lapses, and we aren't 100% attentive at all times. Fatigue often contributes to this, especially during a long shift. Operators also receive a lot of information that can be distracting – maybe they're preoccupied with meeting a productivity goal and don't notice that they're tailgating another truck.

From our perspective, there will always be errors. Hence, it's our job to help ensure that if an operator isn't paying attention or is incapacitated, there won't be an incident leading to severe injury or death.

Of course, you also want to reduce incidents that can cause equipment damage. For example, driving a haul truck too fast in hot weather can ruin its tires which are very expensive to replace.

What are some of the newer technology features that can help?

What are some of the newer technology features that can help?

Several technologies complement each other. Proximity detection systems can give advanced warning of a potential collision. Geo-fencing can warn operators to slow down in hazardous areas or avoid them altogether. The latest machines can also take over some of the controls if there is a hazard and the operator isn't responding. All this is tied together with telematics, which allows a supervisor or fleet manager to monitor the equipment remotely.

But technology can't make a mine safe all by itself. What's also needed is human processes and a culture that reinforces them.

How do you combine human and machine processes?

The key is that humans and machines need to complement each other. We now have a de facto standard for collision avoidance created by the Earth Moving Equipment Safety Round Table (EMERST), which defines where technology will intervene with human action. The standards are structured according to levels, with level 9 being machine intervention.

Levels 1 through 6 are what we call administrative controls. Those are the directives you put in place for your operators. An example is that when you're fully loaded, you're not allowed to travel over a speed of 40 kilometres. Or defining who gets the right of way at a T-intersection. These rules account for 99% of your safety situations in the mine.

Levels 7 – 9 are where the technology targets the exceptional 1% of cases that humans don't catch. The proximity detection system kicks in at level 7, and at level 8, there would be an advisory alarm of a potential hazard. It can also tell the operator if an intersection is clear or occupied. One of the most dangerous things we try to avoid is haul truck-to-light vehicle interaction. If you're in a smaller vehicle, you might not be able to see over berms, for example, so these warnings can be lifesaving.

Level 9 is where the system takes over the controls. It doesn't provide complete autonomy, but it could slow the vehicle down, say, in a 20 kilometres speed zone or stop the vehicle if the operator became incapacitated.

What are some of the challenges of getting a system to work?

One of the keys is minimizing the number of alarms an operator is exposed to, because that can be a distraction and negatively impact production. Also, too many false alarms can cause operators to tamper with the device to turn off the audio.

We recommend that a mine master each EMESRT level before progressing to the next. When mines want to jump right away to a Level 9 system, I recommend that they make sure they have a solid foundation in their administrative controls and spend one or two years stabilizing in Level 7 or Level 8. Once events are at a mimium in Level 7 & 8 you can begin looking at a Level 9 deployment.

I was on a ride-along last week in Australia, and the operator told me, "These alarms never go off. " That's a good thing – the system was mature, and he could trust that if there was an alarm, it meant he should react immediately.
Other than safety, how else can technology compensate for human error?

Other than safety, how else can technology compensate for human error?

A lot of new features can help operators be more productive. Before, if an operator was driving a haul truck, they might have been guessing how long the queue would be for the different excavators and which one was the shortest. Or how many passes it would take to meet a production goal. A lot of this was done in the past on pen and paper, but now it's far more accurate, and it's all available on the screen in the cab or on the fleet manager's computer.

Where is it all headed?

Where is it all headed?

There has always been conversation around completely autonomous sites, but I don't think that's the case. There will undoubtedly be levels of autonomy in different mines of scale, but human-centred design will always be essential. Also, when the operator is experienced, a human-operated machine is still more efficient than an autonomous one, a challenge today and in the future is finding operators. Repetitive tasks are an area where autonomy shines. Another is running machines autonomously during shift changes. But the most significant driver for autonomy is safety, where an operator can step off the machine and operate it remotely when, for example, it is operating near water or other hazardous areas.

So in the next 10 – 15 years, I think we will focus on using smart machines to make our operators safer and more productive.

Bottom line:

Smart equipment can help avoid accidents and increase productivity, but it's essential to have robust systems in place for the many human–machine interactions that take place in a busy mine.

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