Meet the company that has been building automated self-driving mining vehicles for 20 years

Self-driving cars are well and truly on the way to becoming a reality -- and many expect that fully autonomous cars will be on the road within a matter of a few years. But it turns out self-driving tech is more useful than just for carrying passengers -- it can also be used to automate things like mining. 

In fact, Sandvik has been building automated loaders and trucks for use in real mines for a hefty 20 years now, and says that in that time it has achieved zero accidents involving people. That’s pretty spectacular -- and proves that automated vehicles really are ready to do jobs that would otherwise be dangerous to humans. 

To prove how precise its automated trucks and loaders are, the company recently filmed an 11-meter, 38-tonne Sandvik loader navigating through a glass labyrinth. In case you’re unaware of how the automated tech works, glass isn’t really something that the loader would be used to navigating through -- but it still managed to make its way through the narrow aisles without any issues. That’s right before Sandvik CEO Björn Rosengren took over the wheel and promptly steered the loader straight into the glass walls.

Ahead of the curve 

It’s pretty incredible that Sandvik’s automated vehicles have been used in real-life mines around the world for so long -- especially considering the fact that consumer carmakers are only now putting work into self-driving technology. Recently, the company launched its next-generation of automated vehicles. Those vehicles aren’t all loaders either -- in fact, from loading to dumping, Sandvik has developed a range of vehicles that can automate the entire production cycle. Considering the amount of variation between different mines, that’s a pretty spectacular feat of technology.

“It wasn’t an easy task,” says Jouni Koppanen, Senior Systems Engineer for Automation at Sandvik. “You need to consider the different types of mines, different rock sizes and you need to fill the bucket just the right amount. But we did it, and we’re the only ones who have an autoload function.”

Unlike above-ground automated vehicles, Sandvik’s are designed to be able to go forward and backward just as easily and with the same speed, and the vehicles can maneuver with a ton of precision, even in tight spaces. They can also withstand high altitudes, heat, water, and other environments that would do damage to other vehicles and humans. 

Sandvik vehicles are highly intelligent too. Sandvik’s trucks and loaders learn their route the first time they enter the tunnel, thanks to the set of lasers, maps, and sensors built-in. They also feature Sandvik’s patented algorithms, coupled with sensors and gyroscopes to make sure the vehicles know exactly where they’re going, even when GPS isn’t available.

Better, safer jobs 

Sandvik is quick to point out that automating mines with Sandvik vehicles doesn’t necessarily mean doing away with jobs. In fact, what it really means is that jobs are a whole lot safer.

“A customer we have in Australia has automated their entire mine,” Koppanen says. “They still have the same number of people working as they did before, but now most are above ground in comfortable offices. 

“Our automated loaders and trucks are able to maintain an accurate, consistent and efficient level of working. This reduces accidents while increasing uptime and productivity.”

Of course, it’s been a long road to get here -- but one of massive technological innovation. Sandvik puts its vehicles through a ton of testing to ensure that they’re safe and functional. It puts its vehicles to the test at an underground test mine in Tampere, Finland, and it also collaborates closely with its customers to ensure they’re getting exactly what they need.

Looking to the future 

Just because Sandvik’s vehicles have come so far, that doesn’t mean the company is done innovating. In fact, it’s working on its next generation of vehicles that will automate tomorrow’s mines. Specifically, the company is working on reducing the industry’s reliance on the diesel engine, electrifying its vehicles, and developing better battery technology. In other words, Sandvik is perfectly positioned to continue leading in the autonomous vehicle space, and adopt new technologies that make the production cycle more efficient, and don’t do harm to the environment.