Autonomous trucks in real operation

At the Brønnøy Kalk mine in Norway, autonomous Volvo FH trucks are being tested, transporting limestone along a five-kilometre stretch. This is Volvo Trucks’ first autonomous solution in real operation. The aim is to greatly improve the mine’s productivity and safety.
Volvo Trucks’ first autonomous solution in real time operation.
An autonomous Volvo FH at Brønnøy’s limestone quarry.

“Having technology work for us will give us freedom. For example, the machines can work when we want to sleep,” Raymond Langfjord, Managing Director at Brønnøy Kalk says, reflecting on the prospect of phasing in automated technology at the vast quarry site in this remote coastal part of western Norway. The dramatic landscape is the backdrop for a tough assignment, as trucks constantly wind their way on dirt roads through rugged surroundings to and from the crusher site in Velfjord.

Last year, a landmark agreement was signed between Brønnøy Kalk and Volvo Trucks. Automated Volvo FH trucks have since been tested, carrying the extracted limestone through tunnels between the mine itself and the crusher, located at a nearby port where the limestone is loaded onto large ships. The plan is to have the automated trucks fully operational by autumn.

Rather than purchasing the autonomous vehicles, Brønnøy Kalk is actually buying a complete, tailored transport solution from Volvo Trucks – more specifically, the autonomous transportation of the limestone between the two hubs. The autonomous trucks are controlled by the operator of the wheel loader, using a site management system.

According to Raymond Langfjord, the opportunity for the mine to address productivity, flexibility and safety challenges is the main reason for embracing autonomous change. “We have a hundred-year perspective in focus here. Today, we are running a two-shift manual operation in production and maintenance, whereas the ships exporting the limestone are being loaded twenty-four seven. Having the opportunity autonomously to transport the limestone round the clock could greatly improve our operations.”

Raymond Langfjord started working at the Brønnøy Kalk mine back in March 2006. Working his way up, his first job was as a machine operator and a helper with blasting at the mine, carrying buckets of gravel for filling the charged holes before blasting. More responsibility followed over the years and roles as foreman and Production Manager led to his current appointment as Managing Director in January 2017. “I have the experience at all levels and know the different processes very well. This helps in terms of recognising the long-term challenges we face.”

One of Brønnøy Kalk’s major issues is that the mine is located in a high-cost country, while competing in a global market. This means there is a constant drive to become more competitive and, in 2015, Brønnøy Kalk started internal discussions on how to enhance its working methods. After stting up a project group, it contacted several parties, including Volvo Trucks. With Volvo Construction Equipment also part of the process, firm contact was established and an exchange of ideas began about feasible, autonomous solutions. Since then, an ongoing close dialogue between the parties has helped bolster confidence at the mine.

The relationship has been great from day one. Volvo Trucks didn’t start talking about a commercial angle.

“Of course we don’t have all the answers yet. You have to have the belief that we will be able to work together to find solutions to challenges. The relationship has been great from day one. Volvo Trucks didn’t start by talking about a commercial angle. It wasn’t about cost and profit or contracts; it was about what could work for us at Brønnøy Kalk. There were no hidden agendas and we were able to push ourselves forward together so that technology and creativity came to the forefront.”

Raymond Langfjord reckons that using an autonomous solution will also improve safety. Most of the transport at the mine involves tunnels and, in August 2018, a truck caught fire when unloading at the crusher site. Fortunately, the site is in an open area and nobody was injured, but the amount of heat and energy created was a stark warning that such an incident occurring in one of the tunnels could be fatal. 

Apart from this risk there were many other challenges to overcome in order to make the autonomous trucks work perfectly. For a long period of time, Volvo Trucks’ automation team has been testing the solution remotely at their Gothenburg base, so that modifications could be made quickly. The team has also carried out regular live testing at the mine. 

Raymond Langfjord is passionate about the future of Brønnøy Kalk and the potential that autonomy offers. “The next step for us should be to go fully electric. To be honest, I’m not sure how things will be in the future. It’s new technology and we know there will be hiccups. But, from the beginning, Volvo Trucks has been open with us. When there has been a problem, they have solved it. This gives us the confidence that things will work out. Our values and our reputations fit together perfectly.”

Brønnøy Kalk AS

History: Brønnøy Kalk AS was founded in 1997. It is owned by Norsk Mineral AS, a family-owned private company with roots in the mineral industry dating back to 1948. 

Services: The company specialises in the extraction of limestone, which, among other things, is used in the manufacturing of pigments for the international paper industry. 

Established in: 1997.

Owner: Norsk Mineral AS. 

Number of Employees: 50. 

Load: Limestone. 

Number of autonomous Volvo trucks: 6.

Number of wheel loaders: 4.