This self-driving mining vehicle successfully navigated its way through a glass maze, and it's an insight into the future of the industry

The glass maze was built in Arctech Helsinki Shipyard in Helsinki, Finland. Source: Supplied.

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Would you trust a self-driving, 38-tonne loader in a glass labyrinth?

Sandvik has gone to extraordinary lengths to showcase the precision of their automated driving technology by building a glass maze and giving the 11-metre mining loader free rein to navigate.

The maze was built to replicate some of the tight turns and narrow pathways of underground mines, albeit with a more breakable, high-stakes material. It’s not pre-programmed. The loader uses laser sensors, gyroscopes and patented algorithms to read distances and map it’s journey as it progresses.

“We said we were going to do something different and what could be more fragile than a glass labyrinth?” Sandvik CEO Bjorn Rosengren said.

To demonstrate just how fragile the walls are, you can watch Rosengren take over driving the final stretch and smash through a glass wall.

Improving in safety and productivity

Sandvik has been developing self-driving technology since the 1990s to increase the safety of underground mines and improve productivity. In over 20 years, or two million operating hours, there hasn’t been a single accident involving people. The loader currently has sensors that will alert the vehicle if people stray into its working zone and immediately activates the brakes.

While some industries have been dreading the onslaught of automated roles, these loaders are seeing staff being moved into safer workspaces and using their knowledge to help operate the technology.

Senior Systems Engineer for Automation at Sandvik, Jouni Koppanen said, “A customer we have in Australia has automated their entire mine.

“They still have the same number of people working as they did before, but now most are above ground in comfortable offices.”

Sandvik has just launched a new model to automate filling the loader’s bucket, meaning that the entire production from loading to hauling and dumping is automated.

“Right now, our automated loaders and trucks work in a zone that is completely isolated from people and other equipment,” said Annukka Kokkonen, Research Engineer for Research and Technology Development.

“In the future we envision automated loaders and trucks operating safely in the same part of a mine as conventional equipment and people.”

For now, the operators stay in the control room, so they can see exactly where the machine is going via the onboard cameras. Operators can prompt the machine when and where to go, but it’s the intelligent system and algorithms that do all the hard work: following the determined route, calculating the speed, controlling the brakes, steering, loading, hauling and dumping.

Increasingly, miners are being moved from hazardous environments into the safety of above ground operations and reducing the risks associated with mines that are getting deeper with greater levels of emissions.

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