This article was written by Dr Amy McLennan, research fellow at the 3A Institute and Maia Gould, engagement and impact lead at the Autonomy, Agency and Assurance (3A) Institute .
In March 2019, the 3A Institute travelled to Western Australia’s Pilbara region to visit Fortescue Metals Group’s Solomon Hub. Autonomous haulage technology has been used at Solomon since 2012. We heard from people who imagined and built it into one of Australia’s largest autonomous mines.
The Solomon Hub is located at the base of the Hamersley Ranges and operates on Yindjibarndi, Eastern Guruma, Ngarluma/Yindjibarndi and Kariyarra land.
The Solomon Hub consists of the Firetail and Kings Valley mines and uses autonomous trucks to haul iron ore from diggers to crushers or stock piles. These trucks improve mine efficiency and productivity compared to human drivers – autonomous vehicles travel faster and optimise queueing, turning and wait times. They also improve safety: on mines, moving people away from heavy machinery reduces the potential for harm.
The Australian mining industry has arguably created some of the most advanced cyber-physical systems in the world. What can we learn from sites like Solomon about technological systems going to scale?
Some commentators have described autonomous vehicles as replacing human drivers. A closer look at Solomon’s development reveals not replacement of humans, but a constantly-evolving ecosystem where technology, people and place interact and change each other.
The valley has been shaped by mining machinery. The peaks of the ranges above the quarry are not mined, but they are key parts of the ecosystem. They have deep cultural significance for the Traditional Custodians. The peaks are also significant for the operators of the mine for a very different reason: atop them are poles essential for the wireless network to function across the autonomous zone.
The technology is equally shaped by the environment. The Hamersley Ranges make this site narrower than others, and this has influenced the design of the trucks. Their turning circle has been reduced – narrower than the original 160o range dictated by light detection and ranging – and the ability to perform a three-point turn developed. The seasons also matter: in the wet season the sensors require cleaning every 28 hours.
Humans are also an important part of the ecosystem – they are described as both disruptors and controllers, they are also drivers, digger operators and maintenance workers. The Solomon team also host regular family visits, including children, who are escorted on tours of the site.
Rather than being a place where technology is replacing people, the Solomon Hub is a place where technology, environment and humans come together in new ways. This requires ongoing attention to values, hierarchies, rules and relationships.
Some of these are stated and fixed. For example, the company is clear about its vision and values, and all metrics in the system are geared towards achieving safety, low costs and high productivity.
Others are learned and negotiated. For example, all human drivers entering the autonomous zone pass large signs warning them that a hierarchy of control applies. Under this hierarchy, vehicles are ranked in order of right of way, with autonomous vehicles near the top of the hierarchy. In practice though, each autonomous vehicle is programmed to stop for all other vehicles and so one will pause if a lower-rank vehicle crosses its path.
One of the hardest things about bringing on new people or machinery, we’re told, is helping them to make sense of working within the system. Working with automation is one thing; working in a world characterised by autonomy is different, because it calls for adaptation to a different, and evolving, relationship between people, place and technology.
One thing we can learn from the Solomon Hub is that engineering and technical capability alone are insufficient for successful cyber-physical systems. Relationships also matter. Forging, maintaining and renegotiating these relationships over time requires ongoing work. It needs an understanding of the ways societies and ecosystems function, and attention to the values, activities, histories, rules and structures that shape the relationships within them. It calls for skills not currently common in many engineering training courses, and which we are currently building at the 3A Institute.