Heading the automated race

Heading the automated race

Australian mining companies are embracing automation despite its challenges. MARISKA MORRIS learns more about the automated mining industry and what it will mean for Australia

There is an international push towards automated vehicles – an industry that Australian Premier Jay Weatherill believes will be worth AU$ 90 billion (R896 billion) by 2030. Australian mining companies seem to be well ahead of the crowd as automated trucks (the massive, open-cast-mine type) have been running in the country’s mines since as early as 2012.

Rio Tinto, a mining company situated in West Australia, runs a completely automated mine with self-driving trucks and automated drilling, for example. The 69 automated trucks, which transport ore at the Pilbara mine, are run from a control centre in Perth, 1 280 km away from the mine.

“Implementing autonomous haulage means more material can be moved efficiently and safely, which creates a direct increase in productivity,” the company states on its website.

These trucks use precision GPS for navigation as well as radar and laser sensors to avoid obstacles. MIT Technology Review quotes Rob Atkinson, leader of productivity efforts at the mine, who states that driverless trucks are around 15-percent cheaper and more productive as the software doesn’t need to take a break.

“All those places where you could lose a few seconds or minutes by not being consistent add up,” Atkinson says in the article.

Rio Tinto’s rival, BHP Billiton, is also looking towards automation. BHP Billiton completed a pilot project with Caterpillar driverless trucks in New Mexico in 2013 and extended the trial for 12 hauler trucks to be used at its Jimblebar iron-ore mine in Pilbara.

While automation might increase productivity and reduce expenses, it also means a loss of jobs. Aaron Cosbey, development economist and senior associate at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in Winnipeg, Canada, and his co-authors, estimate that automation will replace between 30 and 75 percent of the mining workforce.

In their report, titled Mining a Mirage, Cosbey states that jobs in drilling, blasting and train or truck driving will be affected the most. These positions typically make up 70 percent of employment in mines. He also notes that automation will reach its peak in the next ten to 15 years, which means job losses will increase. For developing countries, job losses aren’t the only concern.

In his article for The Guardian, journalist Oliver Balch notes that resource-rich, developing countries will be affected the most by automation, “with national gross domestic product potentially reducing by as much as four percent in some cases”. This has led to a debate on whether mining policies need to be adjusted.

Howard Mann, senior adviser at the IISD, notes there needs to be a change to the division of wealth in mining. Balch quotes him as saying: “The mining sector model is almost a colonial model. The mining companies own the resources, they own the land and they own all the benefits of harvesting the resources.”

Mann suggests state-owned companies should play a greater role in mining along with “tighter profit-sharing agreements and more service-oriented concessions”.

Not everyone agrees. Aidan Davy, COO at the International Council for Mining and Metals in Australia, says the redeployment of jobs in mining is just as likely as the loss of jobs. He also comments that automation will not be rolled out universally, as the uptake will depend on local issues such as mineral types and availability of skills.

Despite the debates and some objections to automation in the mining industry, it is inevitable in Australia, especially considering the shortage of truck drivers in the country.

A survey found that one in five Australian truck drivers is at retirement age with the average age of a truck driver being 47, reports Adam Carey, transport journalist for the Australian newspaper The Age. According to Carey’s article, projections show the amount of freight required to be moved by truck in Australia will double between 2010 and 2030.

The Australian Department of Transport also estimates that a 150-percent increase in recruitment is needed to meet the growing demand. This is not possible with the current lack of drivers. Mining companies are thus looking to self-driving trucks to meet the necessary demands.

In their 2012 report, titled: Autonomous and Remote Operation Technologies in the Mining Industry, managing director at BAEconomics (BAE), Brian Fisher, and associate Sabine Schnittger, note: “The need to attract new employees, including women, in an environment where skilled labour is in short supply, will further reinforce the trend toward automation, which places workers in a safe environment close to their communities.”

Fisher and Schnittger add that automation increases the safety of the workforce by taking workers away from the isolation of the mine, to the city where they are close to all necessary amenities. To remain in the mining industry, however, traditional craftsmen will need new qualifications and knowledge, which poses its own challenges.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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