May 27, 2015      

Cost has been a major obstacle for advocates of automation in mining, what with commodity prices and mineral yields falling for the past several years. So, why is Autonomous Solutions Inc., a relatively unknown private company that specializes in robotic mining systems, growing rapidly?

It’s partly a result of mining companies accepting that, at this point, productivity can only be increased significantly and safely through automation. But it’s also a result of strategic product decisions by executives at Autonomous Solutions, often referred to as ASI.

Until recently, healthy prices for commodities (and robotics) made automation irrelevant in mining. And lean years made mining firms reluctant to spend money on advanced technology.

Saving money and lives

That’s changing. Prices for raw metal and mineral goods each fell about 35 percent from 2011 to 2014, and they will continue falling this year, according to World Bank figures. To offset this, companies need to reduce one of their few malleable costs: labor.

A 2010 report by business-consulting firm Accenture LLP said a mine’s labor-related costs can be cut by as much as 80 percent through automation.

At the same time, ore grades — the percentage of ore in mined rock — is dropping. To find higher-grade ore, companies have to dig deeper into the earth and even exploit the deep ocean, both environments that are hazardous for workers.

Autonomous Solutions modifies trucks for mining operations

ASI systems can add remote control to any vehicle.

These trends play to the particular strengths of Autonomous Solutions, which has been selected two years running for the RBR50 list of innovative firms. The company primarily makes add-on hardware and software that turn anything from a golf cart to an 18-wheeler into robotic, remotely controlled, and tele-operated vehicles.

It was spun off Utah State University’s Center for Self-Organized and Intelligent Systems in 2000.

Autonomous Solutions’ founder, CEO and president, Mel Torrie, has positioned the company to sell to original equipment manufacturers that then integrate the electronics into new vehicle designs. But the firm’s systems can also automate machinery already in the field, so mining firms interested in robotics don’t have to buy all-new tractors and trucks to automate.

Autonomous Solutions’ hardware and software — typically sold as a per-vehicle package — can be attached to any number of mining, farming, military, and civilian road vehicles. Its tele-operation products were grafted onto land-clearing machinery in April 2013 after one of the world’s largest landslides, in the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. The effort was deemed too dangerous for workers using tractors.

Autonomous Solutions testing and contracts

ASI has 100 acres in Utah for testing, said Torrie at last month’s RoboBusiness Europe event in Milan, Italy. Among the lessons the company has learned are that equipment “can’t be too simple to set up, update, and service,” safety is paramount, and “user experience professionals are worth the money,” he said.

Late last year, Autonomous Solutions joined with mining company Anglo American to rapidly create remotely controlled, tele-operated and autonomous haulers, the enormous dump trucks that transport mined rock around a mine.

There’s a “new math” in truck size, noted Torrie. Instead of 80 40-ton trucks, some mining operations would prefer 800 4-ton vehicles, he said. However, OEMs are concerned about having to service fleets of smaller machines and a potential revenue drop. If the vehicles are automated, or at least partially automated in the near future, it could reduce downtime, Torrie said.

ASI is halfway through a three-year contract with Ford Motor Co., building robotic systems for vehicles undergoing strenuous durability tests. The tests are very taxing for company drivers to do for extended periods.

In addition, Autonomous Solution’s hardware can to some degree work with competitors’ products, according to David Clyde, the firm’s marketing manager.

“Our software would be able to integrate with their hardware, but I doubt their software would be able to integrate with ours. That’s up to them,” Clyde said.

This is significant. The more open a product line is, the better the chance is that it will become an industry standard. Buyers of any technology avoid getting tied to one vendor.

Autonomous Solutions makes only two robotic vehicles, the Forge skidsteer (the Swiss Army knife of small tractors popularized by Bobcat Co.) and a small, tracked scrambler called the Chaos.

ASI also sells some components individually, including its Forecast 3-D laser sensor and Guideline convoy systems.

It all comes down to software

Ultimately, however, robotics all comes down to software, and Autonomous Solutions has applications and platforms that are sophisticated in what they accomplish and yet relatively simple to operate. Easy-to-use robotics alleviates the need for buyers to hire specialized staffers to manage the systems.

Clyde said he foresees a day when the bulk of the company’s sales are software. That is a savvy vision because margins are far higher with applications than for hardware, and there are many opportunities for new value-added products.

Autonomous Solutions’ Mobius is a proprietary command-and-control platform. It enables a single human manager to task and control one or more vehicles. Artificial intelligence modules make up the operational core of Mobius. One module, Haulage A.I., helps surface-mine vehicles react to unexpected changes in their environments and to work in close proximity to other vehicles.

The application Vantage is sold separately. It is a sensor and software package for obstacle detection and avoidance that ties in with other Autonomous Solutions products.

Services, another high-margin area, are becoming a third strategic revenue stream for the company.

“We sell software as a service” as well as conventionally, said Clyde. ASI is examining robotics and automation as services. Its software already gathers data, and Mobius contains analytics capabilities. The company could sell customers insights based on the data.

Autonomous Solutions is growing rapidly. Whether it is because of these strategic moves or simply a rise in the number of buyers, the company would not say. Clyde said ASI employs more than 100 employees and is hiring.

“We’re on track to double [headcount] in the next 18 months,” Clyde said. At the moment, the firm is looking for communications, mechanical, electrical and software engineers.