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Deploying the Fully Autonomous Mine

Luke Renner |


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Luke Renner: This is Advanced Autonomy. I'm Luke Renner. My guest today is Carl Brackpool, he's a research associate at the Colorado School of Mines, where he not only works to advance the next generation of mining technology but also to develop opportunities for greater environmental efficiency and sustainability across the entire industry. In addition to his work at the Colorado School of Mines, Mr. Rockpool worked at hexagon mining from twenty seventeen to twenty nineteen, where he led initiatives to bring new mining technologies to market

In this conversation, we'll be discussing the intersection of the mining sector with autonomous vehicles and other new technologies. Hi Carl. Welcome to the show.

Carl Brackpool: Hey, thanks for having me, Luke. I appreciate it.

Luke Renner: You are a researcher at the Colorado School of Mines. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you do there and what you're working on?

Carl Brackpool: Sure. This is my sixth year as a Research Associate at the Colorado School of Mines here in Golden, Colorado. I started out at mines in the mining engineering department. But over the evolution of seven years, I worked on more and more interdisciplinary research projects that brought in other departments like computational sciences and mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, robotics, and now doing a lot in additive manufacturing materials sciences and sort of creating a nexus where all of those different departments meet.

But still under the guise of extractive, extractive industries like mining.

Luke Renner: Is there anything interesting that you're working on these days that you'd like to talk about?

Carl Brackpool: It's always a hotbed of engineering research, both applied research from corporate-sponsored research programs, but also quite a bit of institutional research funded by large agencies like DARPA, the Department of Energy and Réal National Science Foundation, and a lot of what are called SBIR grants for various research projects. But I'd say probably the coolest ones we've been working on in the last 12-to-18 months and right through the pandemic with very little slowdown are in the areas of circular economies and repurposing wastes from different industries.

And I'm also part of a seven-person committee to explore mining engineering degrees that incorporate more about space mining. So what are we going to do when we go off-terrestrial to look for setting up mining operations, maybe remote operations on the far side of the moon and things like turning basalt rock or moon rock into materials that we can pump through 3D printers and additive manufacturing so that we can we don't have to lift a lot of things off the earth and break the bonds of gravity.

But we can actually build robots in space or on other planets or on asteroids.

Luke Renner: Wow, that's really incredible. Yeah, the last time we had someone talking about mining, we ended up having a lot of discussion about these asteroids that have these massive gold deposits and the opportunities for on-the-moon mining. Do you think that stuff is coming relatively quickly or are we a few decades off?

Carl Brackpool: No, it's coming quickly. There was a period where from the pure mining side — as we teach mining engineers and we have a product that goes out as a qualified degreed mining engineer that is highly sought after in industry — that was down the road.

Those aren't the disciplines that we brought into the pure, pure mining career track or course track. But now we have entire divisions on campus. We have a group dedicated just to space exploration, space mining, and now the mining engineering department is working with that group to talk about how quickly we can put robots on the moon.

There has been some success in privatizing space travel, really to put private robots on other planets and on asteroids. For the reasons you said, there's a number of deposits that are dwindling here. We're running out or exhausting those deposits like rare earth elements. And we see that those are an opportunity in space as well.

If you think about the search for water, which has become topical in the last several years with Space X and the work that's being done on Mars. The discovery of water is huge.

And that can even be ice crystals in the tails of comets and asteroids because we can convert that water into hydrogen. And there is your fuel source, which has been a real stumbling point for how do we continue to advance space vehicles to go further and further to do exploration and eventually production?

Luke Renner: Wow, that's really fascinating. You know, I heard that there's water on the moon also. So it sounds like there's going to be a lot of options for extraterrestrial fuel sources once we finally get on with it here. So you mentioned robotic mining on the moon, which of course is a nice segway to start talking about autonomy.

Where is the mining industry at in its autonomy journey?

Carl Brackpool: Overall, if you go back to, say, 2008 to pick a specific point in time, Rio Tinto in Australia, their CEO at that time coined the phrase The Mine of the Future. And the goal of that was pretty audacious, and that was to completely anonymize their operations. And there were a number of test cases in the Pilbara region, which is Western Australia, and the idea was to make a fully autonomous mine that's more efficient and safer.

I think there were some pretty ambitious goals. Over the course of trying to migrate to autonomy, they uncovered there were certain technical pitfalls as well as change management. There's always going to be this cultural problem of if we replace a human with a robot, what happens to the human worker? You have to get the workers to understand that they'll be able to operate out of a safer environment or co-exist with autonomous machines.

The original idea was to have people working in Telematics or tele-remote operations from what was called remote operating centers or ROC's, which is the same concept as flying drones from a trailer, say, halfway around the world or UASs unmanned vehicles or aerial vehicles. But this idea of telematics gained a lot of traction and that's used quite frequently in underground mining. Now, you have a surface person operating, say, a hammer drill to take medium-sized rocks that were liberated into smaller rocks that fit through crushers and fit through screens and can fit onto belt lines or into trucks for haulage.

So there was a big run-up and everyone was excited about this idea of the fully autonomous mine of the future.

Well, now fast forward from 2008 and there are between 50 and, I believe, 100 fully autonomous or driverless trucks operating in Pilbara for Rio Tinto. And there are other things like their rail lines, their heavy-duty haulage from pit to port, which are fully autonomous with no driver on board. There's still some human intervention in telematics but what we want to get to is a self-learning machine, something that understands its environment through digital visual visualization, through LIDAR and other kinds of scanning techniques, processing that information, trying to match up what its task is to the environmental changes or consistencies and continue to do its tasks in a repetitive manner.

And I'd say the maturity, if you were to look at, say, a hype curve, which is a Gartner tool, I'd say we are past the Pit of Despair. And now there's a pretty good sequence of what tasks or what machinery or what assets can be the first candidates for fully autonomous, self-driving, self-aware vehicles versus those that are going to be a little longer on the evolution path.

Luke Renner: You mentioned that there's a lot of innovation happening within the industry, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about where the divide is. I know a lot of autonomous products and deployments are coming from companies like Cyngn. Are partnerships happening between the technology space and mining more broadly, or is a lot of this development happening in-house and within the industry?

Carl Brackpool: That's a terrific question. When I got into the mining industry, to begin with, my roots were really Silicon Valley and startups and technology and communications — not the extractive industries. I was pulled in through a very, very strange path to be pulled into this through a comms company that I was running. And as I started to understand I was a hypocrite, that mining does produces the things that I use, and there's going to be a greater need for those things.

So, I need to either embrace what the mining industry does. And I think I did a pretty good job of that, being able to bring together the mining industry's needs and requirements with my friends in the Valley who had really cool breakthrough technologies or cutting-edge technologies. I got them to work together in the sandbox on a number of different projects from energy savings through ventilation on-demand, using IoT sensors and Raspberry Pis. I found that it was really a cultural smashup by telling my friends in the mining industry that if you understand there's a wealth of technology, you just have to be open to it instead of taking a defensive posture.

See, the mining industry has been under the microscope for a very, very long time and they've been getting much better with their management of reclamation of lands and their treatment of water. At the same time over, in the Valley, letting technologists understand that they cannot be antagonistic towards extractive industries and still ride carbon fiber bikes and want their Teslas and use all of their electronic components, their Macbooks, and everything else like their phones, their smart devices.

They must understand it’s a critical industry. So I was able to bring these two together and start to go down the path of doing trial projects and things like that.

So with respect to your question, whereas mining used to be this little controlled environment where mining technology companies and mining vendors only sold to mining purchasers or buyers and who would provide feedback of what are the next features and functions we need, we've sort of been able to create a world of agile thinking and design thinking, and a lot of the terms that we use in Silicon Valley are starting to seep into the mining industry.

So we do use lean, agile for the development of initiatives, understanding problem statements, how to write the perfect problem statement on a mine, and then send those back to people who used to be on the outside who are being pulled in or allowed in to work together with mining companies. So in answer to your question, in short, companies like Cyngn are absolutely necessary for embedded software and the types of products that you produce and the technologies you produce to be included in vehicle intervention systems, fatigue monitoring systems, guidance systems for, you know, robotic machines or robotic assets or fleet management systems.

Luke Renner: Since you work at the Colorado School of Mines, I'd love to hear how your curriculum is changing get-go and how students are starting to engage with the transformation that's coming from the get-go.

Carl Brackpool:We're preparing them that they'll be part of a future that requires not just understanding geology, permitting, and mineral processing, and extractive metallurgy, they'll also need to understand electrical engineering, computational sciences, mechanical engineering, advanced material sciences, and advanced chemistry. So the mining engineer of the future that comes out of our school is going to have a very broad understanding of those interdisciplinary projects or how those different facets of other industries or technologies have to come together seamlessly and co-exist in the stack, as you said before.

So a mining engineer is going to know a lot more about software, writing algorithms, programming and maintaining robots, and how to deploy those in a way that's safe for everyone. In return, the value of these engineers continues to go up in the world. We will always be at a deficit where we're constantly in need of new engineers as older engineers retire out or leave the business.

Luke Renner: How do you imagine a greater deployment of autonomous vehicles might impact the sustainable efforts and practices of the space?

Carl Brackpool: I mean, I think the perfect world of autonomous machines is that they operate without any idle time. They are task-specific and can run 24/7 without shift changes. If they are electrically produced, they're charging using onboard solar and energy storage. The big problem right now with drones is they have to come back down and charge, but the drones of the future will either beams of energy in the sky — which there are six different companies that I know of personally that are working on Tesla-type beams of energy that power those drones while they're operational.

Same thing with autonomous vehicles. If they can run 24/7/365 with no downtime, there are no startup problems, there's no wear and tear on the machines, there's no idle time which is just producing diesel particulate into the air. We could talk about that for another hour about what they can do to help us become more or stay more environmentally compliant.

Luke Renner: Generally speaking, the autonomous vehicle stack involves sensors. It involves hardware, it involves cloud computing. I'm wondering if there are any additional components of autonomy that we can find in the mining space that are of particular interest these days. 

Carl Brackpool: Yeah, I mean, one comes to mind, and it was always a fringe thing because it was more of a hobbyist thing, but it literally fell into our lap and when I say ours, I don’t mean so much Colorado School of Mines, but a terrific professor, Dr. Craig Bryce, who runs the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory.

He and I worked together on this customer-facing project, which turned into a commercial venture. Older and older machines that are not autonomous and not good candidates for full autonomy are still out there in the workforce and there’s a big cost to our carbon footprint to build these big, heavy parts for these old machines. So, the question we asked was what was the best way we could approach that?

The idea of mobile 3D printing in alloys was a no-brainer. And the next thing you know, we have a company now that does additive manufacturing where we're looking at different alloys as feedstock in our deposition printers. Eventually, it'll be laser powder bed fusion printers to print very, very small parts just in time, just as a machine breaks.

You can envision a future where a fully autonomous robotic machine already is self-aware and knows that a part is going to fail within the normal maintenance period — or an unplanned failure — and sends its particular request to the cloud where there’s a digital file ready to send to the deposit printer that 3D prints the new part. The new part goes into the maintenance bay. The machine ends up there between shifts or at a downtime, and the part is made up using a robotic technician, a robotic maintenance technician will take that 3D printer apart.

Luke Renner: Yeah, I mean, they do that on remote spaces like the International Space Station so it completely makes sense that these technologies would be made available at these mining sites, which also can be totally off the grid. So that's really fascinating.

And it obviously supports the sustainability efforts and the sustainability conversations the space has been going through because anytime you can replace a part as opposed to an entire vehicle, that obviously saves the materials.

You know, it's funny because Cyngn really thinks about things in the same way, because the technology we build is a retrofit. It's designed to work in the vehicle's fleet operators already own so they can get better value and longer use out of their investments.

Carl Brackpool: The OEMs — original equipment manufacturers — have a vested interest in selling their product to stay solvent, to be profitable so they can innovate and do the next thing. There is this healthy competition between all of the major manufacturers, and they have their own product development roadmaps for fully autonomous. But like I said before, in the middle of the curve is the vast majority of the fleet that's out there working right now, that is not a good candidate to be replaced or it eats too much into the margin and a company cannot afford the latest, greatest autonomous thing. So what can we do to retrofit?

And if Cyngn has a component to be able to add new embedded firmware or software to, say, an ICU and engine control unit or some sort of vehicle intervention black box that's onboard and make that machine autonomous — well, that extends the longevity of it and reduces our appetite for raw materials and other things.

So, I think we can all coexist together. The companies that have a vested interest in fully robotic off-the-shelf right now and those that want to support their machines are still going to be in service for a long, long time.

Well, Carl, I really appreciate all the time. Thanks so much. This has been super interesting.

Carl Brackpool: Luke. It's been fun. I love the questions, and I like how it goes all over the map. Hopefully, I’ve provided some insight and really look forward to the future of autonomous with the Cyngn being a part of that.

Luke Renner: Yeah, sounds great. So am I. I will talk to you later, all right? Thanks again.



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