Back in the day, the closest thing miners had to autonomous machines were the pit ponies and canaries they worked with. Now, in the 21st century, we’re creeping steadily closer to living the sci-fi reality of fully automated mines.
Emew, a multinational organisation that helps small mines remain viable, sees automation as a juggernaut we won’t be able to stop. Their Digital Marketing Manager, Marko Mihajlovic, explained:
“I think we can expect its popularity to rise even further in the upcoming years as more money is invested into these technologies from big companies, like CAT.”
The companies supplying the machines are getting more and more obsessed with automation. Just as 2g was made obsolete by the 4g (and now 5g) networks, non-automated mining will one day go the way of green, back-lit screens and snake. And, just as we have no choice about upgrading to smartphones, the mines will have little choice but to transition to the new technology.
The mention of snake gets many people nostalgic (so much so, Nokia has actually made a snake emulator for modern phones). Others are less than impressed with the game’s premise of a line that eats dots at increasing speed.
It’s the same with mining. The new technology is met with mixed responses. Some people exclaim in awe at remote-operated haul trucks that are literally giant version of the RVs they had as a kid. Others see it as a possible way to flip the mining downturn back to an upswing. But many worry about the effects on humans and this, in turn, sparks a yearning for simpler times.
Those driving the changes counter that automation is creating simpler times for the mining industry. That is, in fact, the purpose of their tech: to simplify our lives. Which side of this argument you come down on is entirely a matter of perspective. Take robotic refuelling for example.
The technology behind this process is profoundly complex. There’s a lot going on there. But its action streamlines and simplifies the workflow of its human colleagues. Complex or simple? It all depends on how you choose to look at it.
Will automation put people out of work?
Yes and no. There will be jobs that become obsolete. And it may be that we need to take Elon Musk’s advice and look at a Universal Basic Income to buffer the effect this will have on people.
But it’s important to realise there will be new jobs to take the place of the old ones. Mihajlovic sees it as a “win-win” for operators, so long as they take the opportunity to up-skill and move into mining roles only humans can do.
So what will it be like working with robots?
Rio Tinto has dedicated itself to keeping pace with the automation juggernaut. Their Head of Technology and Innovation, Greg Lilleyman, explained automation is a slight misnomer. At this stage in the game anyway. The machines still need human interaction to be effective. It’s just a whole new world of interaction.
“A well run mine that implements automation becomes a well run mine that is automated. While a poorly run mine that implements automation simply becomes a poorly run mine that has automation.”
The benefits of automation in mining
Rio Tinto now employs driverless Komatsu haul trucks. They use radar and laser sensors to “see” obstacles, and never blame the GPS when they make a wrong turn. Because they don’t make wrong turns. The company has shared videos of the trucks in action but they are also sales pitches for fossil fuels and Rio Tinto. We’re doing the impartial thing here but, if you’re interested, they are only a click-search-click away.
One of the Productivity Managers involved in the project, Rob Atkinson, says the trucks, and other automation projects, have already started paying off. The driverless trucks are 15% cheaper to run than human-operated vehicles. With haulage being the mine’s biggest expense, that 15% means a lot.
Taking humans out of the equation also removes shift changes, toilet breaks, lunch breaks and mental breaks. Because they are driven by programmed algorithms, their work is also consistent and reliable. In the world of mining, Atkinson says that equates to a massive saving in the long-term.
“All those places where you could lose a few seconds or minutes by not being consistent add up.”
Not only do you gain back those scattered minutes we humans spend on phones, food and toilets, it is also feasible for the machines to be running 24 hours a day in a state of constant production.
Both Atkinson and Mihajlovic agree automation will have a positive effect on human safety. But if you’re removing a bunch of humans from an area it is statistically obvious that injury risk will go down. Less humans = less people to get hurt. This is kind of a cheap win for automation. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the humans who are still on site will be safe.
The risks of mining AI
Robots come with their own unique dangers. In August 2015, an automated haul truck collided with a human-operated water truck out at Jimblebar. The driverless truck was following a pre-plotted path but this had apparently not been communicated to drivers on site. You know that awkward moment when you’re trying to avoid bumping into someone but they keep going the same way as you?
Imagine that but with massive machines (and no dancing). The human in the water truck and the detection system in the haul truck both became aware of the imminent collision but, due to the speed they were travelling at, were unable to avoid it. The water truck driver received only minor injuries but the haul truck sustained significant damage.
While no humans were harmed in the incident, the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum used it as a platform to call for the elimination of human-machine interaction out in the mines. In the interim, they demanded greater training and more detailed procedures for anyone who will cross paths with the automated beasts.
The bottom line
Unless we’re interrupted by the zombie apocalypse or some other catastrophic event, automation is here to stay. We can expect to see more and more machines converted to unmanned models as the years go on. Our job, it seems, is to get ourselves used to it.