Robot miners are here today

robot miningThe largest civilian robotics operation on Earth is coming to fruition in the dusty Pilbara outback. This is the Mine of the Future™ (yes, ™):

Autonomous trucks roll smoothly from rockface to crusher or dump, while automated drilling rigs sink elaborate shot-hole patterns to be charged by a robot explosives truck for the next, scientifically-shaped blast. Soon, driverless ore trains will ferry their loads through the iron-red folds of the Pilbara Ranges. All this is taking place under the watchful eyes of new-age “miners” in a cyber-age operations centre located in Perth, 1,500km away.

Enormous trucks the size of small buildings dance to a tune crafted at a distant operations centre. But these aren’t just remote control vehicles, the whole thing is controlled but autonomous:

The whole mining operation is planned in advance and is dynamic. It has a memory. It learns. It anticipates trouble and responds. Its neural paths interlink at lightspeed. It functions like a brain the size of an iron ore province, co-ordinated by the “control tower”, the Operations Centre in Perth.

At one level this is awe-inspiring. It’s great that this is happening in Australia, somewhat sad to see it using technology from overseas (although probably using iron from one of our holes in the ground).

While the mining companies are very keen to emphasise that all this does not mean local people losing jobs, it sort of beggars belief that there will not be fewer people involved over time: The workforce that runs the autonomous fleet is less than half that required for a manned fleet. What is fascinating though is the change in the type of people required. Mining jobs will become increasingly high-tech, specialised and decentralised. Companies are looking to recruit people with high IT skills and a strong interest in robotics – it would be nice to think that we can find those people here in Australia and is get another reason to increase our focus on STEM education.

Image: Rio Tinto.

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