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How robotics is changing the mining industry

Mining Robots
At Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine, nearly two dozen driverless trucks haul iron ore on pre-planned courses

The mining industry frequently has an impact on daily life, from the mica found in sparkly eyeshadows to the coal that helps produce energy to supply power to homes. However, mining is one of the world’s most hazardous professions and can result in fatalities.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), , less than ten years ago, mining jobs comprised 1% of the global labour force but 8% of accidents that result in fatalities. According to research, up to 1,000 miners per year in the United States pass away due to things like falling, explosions, or machines.

But with automation and cutting-edge technology, it’s conceivable that mines all over the world will be managed by robots. In reality, mining robots are gradually taking the place of people while also saving lives. Here’s how:

Benefits of mining robots

While mining robots are replacing workers in the field, they also provide the mining industry with a number of advantages. In addition to saving human lives, mining robots also increase productivity. As a result, mining businesses can make even greater financial savings by using twenty-four-seven robots. Self-driving ore trucks, deep-sea mining robots, and automated drill rigs are a few examples of mining robots that can aid with these objectives.

Self-driving ore trucks

Self-driving ore trucks are being automated using the same technology that drives self-driving trucks. This facilitates the extraction of ore from hazardous underground areas that may endanger the safety of human miners. Radar and laser technology allow these self-driving ore trucks to easily traverse underground.

At Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine, nearly two dozen driverless trucks haul iron ore on pre-planned courses, tracked by autonomous water carts that are used to control dust. Robots are used to transfer samples in the site’s laboratory, while ore departs the mine on a driverless train for export to customers in Asia. The mine shipped its first or last month and will ramp up to full capacity next year.

To operate and maintain the machines at Gudai-Darri, Rio Tinto employs roughly 600 workers on site and more than 70 people in a control center in the state capital of Perth, almost 1,000 miles away. Construction of the mine ran over budget and was delayed by months, partly because Rio Tinto wasn’t able to get the labor it needed. The miner is grappling with hundreds of unfilled roles across the Pilbara, a region of Australia that supplies more than half of the world’s iron ore.

Mine workers are now “much more likely to pick up a tablet than a spanner,” said Simon Trott, Rio Tinto’s head of iron ore, as he inspected an array of more than 80,000 solar panels that will help to power Gudai-Darri.

Technology will change as many as four in every five mining jobs by 2030, according to a 2019 estimate by EY. Traditional manual labour is making way for remote operating centers, automation, and robotics. Truck drivers and drill operators are being supplanted by autonomous fleet operators, data scientists, and systems engineers.

“Automation hasn’t led to the doomsday scenario of mass layoffs,” said Robert Carruthers, acting chief executive at the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia. “In fact, it’s created new roles that didn’t exist before automation.”

Union officials disagree that the number of new roles is keeping pace with job losses. Shane Roulstone, national organizing director at the Australian Workers’ Union, said roughly half of the jobs that existed on mine sites remain after automation. New roles at remote operating centers can’t fill the gap, he said. Union officials say they support digital innovation when it doesn’t lead to layoffs.

Rio Tinto’s Mr. Trott said the nature of work was changing, and the miner had increased staff numbers overall.

Higher commodity prices are supporting billions of dollars of investment in automation, which miners say isn’t aimed at reducing head count. Turning trucks and other equipment into robots eliminates breaks for meals or shift changes. It can lower fuel usage by 10% to 15%, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and reduces tire wear. It can also remove people from some dangerous tasks, improving safety.

Laura Tyler, chief technical officer at BHP Group Ltd., expects cost inflation and supply-chain constraints to lead companies to focus more on automation. “The transition to more autonomous operations depends on the availability of skills as much as it does on the speed of technology development,” she said.

Mile-long driverless trains began traversing the Outback three years ago, hauling iron ore from inland mines to coastal ports in Western Australia. Those advances caught the attention of rail-company executives from countries including the U.S. and Canada, which see an opportunity to transfer the technology to the U.S. to create more fluid networks akin to a model train set.

Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., which has been rolling out driverless trucks for nearly a decade, now has roughly 190 operating at its mines in Australia. It would need to replace them with 240 manually operated trucks to produce the same amount of iron ore, Chief Executive Elizabeth Gaines said.

Still, it hasn’t been a smooth journey. Rio Tinto’s effort to introduce driverless trains was three years late and ran to almost double the original budget.

“Automation hasn’t worked quite as well as they say it has,” said Mr. Roulstone, the union official.

He said driverless trucks take longer to service than earlier manual versions, although miners say any additional downtime is marginal. Mr. Roulstone also said he was aware of repeated breakages of costly rods on autonomous drills, although several miners disagreed that was a problem.

Today, there are shortages in digital computing and analytics roles and more-traditional mining jobs such as engineers and heavy diesel fitters, according to the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association.

“The digital talent squeeze has accelerated,” said Andrew Milner, chief transformation officer at Teck Resources Ltd. The Vancouver-based miner is addressing the shortfall by increasing its involvement with universities and technical associations, he said.

Job openings in Australian mining have climbed by 72% in around two years, according to official data. A quarter of miners are reporting vacancies. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level in 50 years, and vacancies have jumped to a level where there is nearly one unfilled role for every job seeker.

Mining companies say they are spending more on sign-up and retention bonuses, altering rosters for workers that fly in and out of mine sites, and upgrading facilities to attract workers.

Mining robots that explore flooded mines

In order to find rare minerals, mining robots are also exploring abandoned, flooded mines. These “roaming” deep-sea mining robots are capable of operating in small areas. Additionally, they can aid in finding rare minerals even in limited visibility. Additionally, these robots assist in lowering the expense of security investments for both current and upcoming research.

Drilling ore from the earth with automated drill rigs

Mining robots also help save human lives by drilling ore from the ground. These robotic drill rigs aid in extracting ore from the planet. Humans are at risk when extracting minerals from the ground since explosives are needed to shatter rocks. Additionally, human miners would need to drill the holes where the explosives would be placed using standard equipment. But in addition to saving lives, these automated drilling rigs also aid in accelerating productivity to save time. This is so that the drilling rigs can make holes more quickly than human miners using their usual tools can.

Mining robots of the future

As technology advances, mining robots also have the potential to extract minerals from landscapes humans have never been able to explore successfully. For instance, mining robots will be able to extract minerals deep within the world’s oceans, where increased pressure and low visibility make it dangerous for humans to explore. Also, mining robots have the potential to extract rare minerals from space. Moreover, the mining industry could also see an increased prevalence of driverless trains and other automated mining robots to help improve safety in the industry and enhance productivity.

With innovations like self-driving ore-carrying trucks and deep-sea mining robots, mining robots are making a significant impact on the mining industry by replacing humans. These autonomous robots are saving lives, driving productivity, and have the potential to help the mining industry explore new landscapes for new mineral extraction opportunities. Thus, it’s crucial for mining companies to consider the significance robots have and will continue to have in the future.

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