Automation is touted as the next revolution in mining.
A revolution that is already here, to a degree.
But where is it heading now?
Many are predicting that the mining industry will become totally automated, and sites of the future will simply be made of autonomous trucks and machinery, operating without human control, only occasionally serviced and maintained by workers to keep them in peak form.
The machine, not the person, will be running the mine. It will become a matter of artificial intelligence mixed with remote operating centres controlling vehicles traversing all over the site without a human to be seen apart from in the workshops; and maybe not even there as process control instrumentation and communications technology moves ahead.
It will not even be a case of man versus machine. The machine will dominate the mine and fix all the productivity problems within operations now.
It paints a worrying picture of the future for many in the industry – where will the jobs go? How much will it cost? Is this the end of the miner?
No, it isn't.
The ridiculous picture painted before is simply that. While automation's prevalence is growing, the way in which the mining industry uses it is changing.
Speaking to Accenture's mining program and project manager, Nigel Court, he told Australian Mining that "the mining industry is currently in a phase where innovation is quickly turning tip-of-the-spear technologies into disruptive new capabilities that present opportunities for strong differentiation and massive leaps in efficiency".
And automation is one of these main disruptive capabilities, but it is not seen as the be all and end all.
"Automation is now being looked to not as a panacea to fix productivity and efficiency on site, rather "people are focusing on how it can be applied to solve specific problems encountered on site".
It used to be that miners would go for a complete automation solution, Court explained, saying "one client of ours was considering complete automation of its trucking, drilling, and load and haul operations, but after investigating it they've come to realise that a combination of both manned and unmanned to gain top performance".
Automation is preferred because of the safety aspects that it brings to a site.
With great collision avoidance programs and set speeds for all the vehicles the risk of a dangerous incident is dramatically reduced.
Court added that "we are seeing the quicker uptake of automation and automated processes on site, but there are still a few issues".
And these issues are found in the most unlikely place.
"It does have a major productivity hole," he stated.
"With the inbuilt safety and proximity programs we see automated vehicles detect an issue on their path, be it a large hole, a big rock, another vehicle, and they automatically shut down, without informing the workshop why it has shutdown, simply that it has. This requires an operator to take time and come down from the workshop and restart the vehicle and deal with the issue at hand, be it stopping due to another vehicle or an obstacle in the way.
"Whereas if a person was driving, with the proximity detection and collision avoidance software inbuilt, then after an incident like this they can simply restart the vehicle and continue or drive around the obstacle."
He went on to say "from a safety aspect this is much better however from a productivity aspect the operation will suffer from these often unpredictable downtimes".
"Automation has demonstrated that when it comes to safety and efficiency it is great for implementing in the case of simple tasks, but when it comes to more complex operations and areas then it may be that total automation is not always the right choice.
"People are now thinking about where automation is the right solution and how people can use their skills to increase productivity," he said, adding that it was about obtaining the right combination of the two.
"Automation can be the right solution for a business, but many in the industry aren't seeing the future as 100 per cent automation on sites; it may be a mix of 80 per cent automated fleets, or even a 50/50 mix, it really depends on what is right for the operation as you don't expect a site with a relatively small truck fleet to go down a 100 per cent automated route as it doesn't make financial sense."
Moving away from the focus on vehicles, Court also outlined the development of automation in the minerals processing sector, explaining that it's "all about adding service to the operation".
"For instance automating the process for better crushing and screening to create better throughput, whilst doing it in a safer manner, which in turn ensures optimisation of the processing at the plant creates efficiencies right down the line.
"We expect to see incremental automation in minerals processing, but with the drive for safety over-riding the drive for excessive automation unless the technology is controlled and proven."
However one area where Court did predict a spike in automation is the use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on mine sites.
He linked this to the increase of remote operation centres currently being seen, as both BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto develop their own remote control centres thousands of kilometres from their operations throughout the Pilbara.
Drones would typically be used for surveying and mapping on site, however new uses for them such as aerial real time truck fleet management, site and remote infrastructure monitoring, and machinery tracking are all being developed.
Using drones is "a more efficient process, and can produce more real time information in a much safer manner than getting surveyors out on the site," Court stated.
Outlining the mine of future, circa 2020, he stated that drones are likely to be playing an integral role right across the value chain, both on and offsite, delivering value in the areas of exploration and development, safety and security and operational productivity.
He went on to provide a unique example of time savings when using automated drones over workers.
"Imagine there was an issue on the rail line in the Pilbara, from the time the problem is identified to getting the worker out there to see the cause of the issue through to getting someone out there to solve it it could be three hours or more, whereas if a drone is flown over it can reach the site in less than half an hour, take high resolution photos that can be used to identify the problem, after which someone can be sent out to fix out the problem," he said.
"It also has the ability to take high resolution, time lapse pictures of a site to see if fractures have appeared in the rock faces over time for early detection so that it removes much of the risk and increases safety on site."
With drones and UAVs already seeing some use in surveying, the likelihood of this avenue of their use is only set to expand.
"The possibilities for the application of drones in mining are seemingly endless with new uses coming to light every week and more widespread utilisation being reported across the industry," Court said.
"We see potential benefits across the value chain, from safety and security (search & rescue, monitoring / providing information from dangerous and difficult locations) to exploration and development (such as aerial photography and remote sensing) and productivity (stockpile mapping, mine mapping & reconciliation and time lapse photography) just to name a few.
"Leading mining businesses are rapidly making these kinds of capabilities available through their use and customisation of drones. Turning these ideas into results of course requires coordinated planning across the value chain and focused execution. While we are likely on the front side of the hype cycle, we believe these capabilities will continue to mature and will transform the industry."
Automation is certainly not the panacea to all of mining's issues, but it certainly is a remedy to some of the existing efficiency hurdles, and if used correctly in conjunction with a mixed human and automated operation it can be a stepping stone for the resource industry's evolution.
Image: ADAM Technology