Fully-Automated Mines: Science Fiction or Reality?
One of the most interesting things about a film like Terminator is that we can sort of imagine it happening in real life. Given how quickly technology has progressed over the last few decades, the idea of robots becoming self-aware and malignant is not impossible. In fact, prominent scientists (including the late Stephen Hawking) have openly expressed concern over the looming dangers of A.I.
So far, we’ve managed to keep robotics working for and not against us. You just need to see this footage of automated car assembly in Japan to see just how awe-inspiring it already is. Likewise, most of the electronics we use every day are mass-produced without ever touching human hands. The world has not ended; in fact, the possibilities of robotics and automation are opening new frontiers in many industries.
Commercial mining is one of those industries. Certain types of mining automation have been speculated (or have existed) for decades. The Swedish mining industry has talked about having had functional self-driving trucks since the 1970’s – but practical, wide scale applications of are only just appearing. Iron ore miners made headlines in 2015 when it launched a fleet of 69 driverless trucks across three mines in Western Australia. All of the trucks were controlled by remote operators in Perth.
But that technology is already obsolete. The company’s haul trucks, built by the Japanese manufacturer Komatsu, now run autonomously with the help of GPS, radar, and laser sensors. A 15% reduction in hauling costs was reported since driverless vehicles were introduced, and the company (along with several of its competitors) is continuing down this path with a full head of steam. The benefits – reduced costs, fewer accidents, the elimination of dangerous roles, and 24 hour operation – are simply too great to ignore.
And driverless vehicles aren’t the half of it. Driverless locomotives for hauling ore across the expanses of Western Australia are already in operation. Almost all Iron Ore miners are using robotic drills, in addition to autonomous trucks, at iron ore sites in WA. The Swedish mining company Boliden has partnered with Ericsson to build a 5G smart ventilation network that saves 18 megawatts of energy every year. Innovations are coming fast and furious, and if there are any remaining doubts of a major paradigm shift in our industry, those doubts will soon be laid to rest. Experts widely predict that most mines will be significantly automated within a decade. As the technology improves and gets cheaper, the cost of standing on the sidelines will become too great.
Some people are celebrating the promises of automation – both for productivity and safety – while others are lamenting the effect it could have on jobs, communities and families. It’s entirely true that automation will create new roles (the remote operators at control centres thousands of kilometres away from the remote mine sites, for example), but it’s unclear just how far automation will go, and how it will transform the need for human resources at mining sites.
It’s easy to think that machines will one day do it all, from analysing topography and subterranean landscapes to drilling, blasting, hauling and crushing. Today’s mines have a plethora of sophisticated technology at their disposal, and stern lessons from the recent ten-year productivity boom call for a more meticulous leaner style of mining in the future. The fact is, no amount of crying for the way things used to be will stop mining operations from becoming increasingly automated. As the technology 1) exists, 2) becomes more affordable, and 3) leads to gains in productivity and safety, operators will increasingly adopt and embrace it.
Since the introduction of robotics into mining, there has been some debate as to the validity of machines to do certain tasks and some tasks that are not nearly as conducive to robotic assistance, for the moment anyway. Blasting, for example, remains one of the most vital functions in our trade. Mistakes can come at a serious cost. Is it too much to say that areas like precision blasting will always belong in the hands of experts? Is it reasonable to argue that finding the right people and partnerships will always lead to more productive job sites, no matter how many cyborgs are running around? Or are cyborgs required?
Automation is the future, to be sure. It will cut safety risks, increase efficiency, and allow mining operations to not only increase profit margins, but also gain access to deposits that would otherwise be unobtainable. Machines do have their limits though, even the Terminator comes to an unsettling end. The world’s first fully automated mine might not be far off, but it won’t be long before the experts are called in to make it bigger and better.
This article originally appeared on www.daveybickford.com