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Ghost in the Machine: Mining's Driverless Trucks


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Construction has always been a dangerous job, and perhaps one of the only fields that rivals the industry when it comes to occupational hazards is mining. Miners face a daily barrage of threats, from explosions to fires to cave-ins trapping them deep below the earth. 

The mining industry has fallen on difficult times lately as the nation looks more to renewable energy sources, but the U.S. still gets 30% of its power from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, precious metals mining and mining industrial materials like iron ore, keep it profitable and active, making the industry a prime candidate for automation.

Rio Tinto is one of the largest mining companies in the world. It’s presently using more than 80 driverless trucks to haul iron ore at four of its Australian mines. The trucks themselves are the size of small buildings, each three stories high, and are controlled remotely from Rio Tinto’s centralized control center in Perth, over 700 miles away, according to mining.com. The company is also working on driverless trains to haul the mined ore over hundreds of miles of track, according to NBC MACH.

The company’s investment in autonomous vehicles has already started to pay dividends. Rio Tinto has found its driverless trucks cost 15% less to run than human-operated ones, resulting in considerable savings on haulage, mining operations’ largest single cost, according to Technology Review.

Rio Tinto is not the only company dipping its toe into autonomous mining. Mining giant BHP Billiton, is deploying its own driverless trucks and drills on its ore mines in Australia, according to Technology Review. Canada’s largest oil company, Suncor, has also started testing autonomous trucks on its oil sands fields in Alberta, British Columbia.

“You can operate these robots remotely from halfway across the world,” Dr. Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh told NBC. “That will allow people in the Midwest to work and operate mining equipment in Australia.”

“You can operate these robots remotely from halfway across the world”

Autonomous vehicles are being built for much more than simply hauling mined material. They’re even useful underground, from drilling and detonation to working side by side with humans to collect and scan samples. Using laser scanners and radar to see, their speed and size makes them perfect for navigating narrow tunnels too cramped for human miners. Volvo is working on self-driving trucks to operate deep underground, operated by mining firm Boliden, according to NBC MACH.

Autonomous or remote-controlled mining vehicles could even make mining possible in some of the most inhospitable of environments, such as the ocean floor or in space, NBC wrote.

“Making use of robots may be our only chance to ever extract minerals in such areas,” Dr. Bernhard Jung, professor of computer science at Freiberg University of Mining and Technology in Germany told NBC.

“Making use of robots may be our only chance to ever extract minerals in such areas”

Even the toughest, most determined miner in the world can only work so many hours in a day before needing a rest. Automated trucks work around the clock, and have no use for bathroom breaks or shift changes. Their consistent performance of repetitive tasks also means their daily output is more predictable than a human worker's.

As automation and robotics technology becomes cheaper and better, more mining companies are expected to deploy their own solutions. Major companies like Volvo, Caterpillar have invested heavily in the technology, and auto manufacturers are also devoting huge amounts of resources to driverless technology.

At the end of the day the name of the game is safety and efficiency. If mines of the future can be operated with fewer human workers actually underground, with machinery controlled by itself or remotely from the safety of an office somewhere above ground, it means fewer lost lives in the event of an accident. If machines can work 24 hours a day, faster than their human counterparts, and reach areas inaccessible to human miners, it means more work getting done with greater precision in less time.

Automation technology certainly has the potential to disrupt the mining industry, which will undoubtedly face new challenges as it becomes more ubiquitous. It will likely impact or even replace some human workers. However, as with any disruptive technology in the past, the workforce always recalibrates itself to find a place within the new normal after the dust of change settles. 

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