For experts at Sandvik and the CSIRO, the future of automation in mining is already upon us.
And while we’ve started to introduce this technology on Australian sites, it doesn’t mean researchers have slowed down their efforts.
But while most of the public’s attention is focused on the big picture, such as driverless trucks and trains, researchers are digging deeper than the hardware requirements.
Communication technology is the crucial wiring that supports autonomous vehicles, and it’s on this sector that experts are doubling their efforts in order to roll out the next generation of autonomous equipment.
Speaking at a conference in Perth recently, Sandvik director Andrew Philpott told said the endgame of automation was to produce mines vastly different to what we know today.
“The final objective is full automation of the mining process,” he said.
“But we also realise this is basically a journey that will require several steps, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”
Communication will form the bedrock of these gradual improvements, allowing companies to move beyond driverless trucks, trains, and drills and into other parts of the mining process.
“For us we need to develop a common platform so that all the equipment can communicate with each other and we can envelop all the equipment under the existing automation technology,” Philpott said.
And as operators and managers off site use this technology, the reliability of their link to the equipment cannot be understated.
“What’s going to happen is that the flow of information is going to become as important, if not more important, than the flow of ore,” CSIRO principal research scientist Elliot Duff said.
“If information stops flowing, you won’t be able to mine.”
For Duff and the CSIRO embedding machines with the same ‘geological awareness’ as humans is one of the biggest challenges.
Duff said as more and more workers were moved off site there was a risk that broader concerns about a mine’s condition would go unnoticed.
For the CSIRO the problem was that while machines may be good at completing repetitive tasks, their awareness of conditions outside their programming is effectively zero.
“By automating a piece of equipment you may have reduced the hazard to one person, but you may have increased the hazard on other parts of the mine,” Duff said.
“So the awareness that geologists, surveyors and any other worker has needs to be built into these machines.”
On top of this heightened state of awareness, Duff said managers would need to consider reshaping the design of a mine to ensure autonomous vehicles did not risk the lives of humans on site.
“We have to segregate and isolate all autonomous vehicles from people,” he said.
“This is a big challenge because it can have a big impact on productivity, so whatever you gain by automating a piece of equipment you may lose in other areas because of that fact that automated machines and people can’t mix.”
For Duff these efforts to improve communication amount to making a “digital version” of each mine.
But as computers take over more and more responsibility, most experts insist that humans aren’t on the way out just yet.
At Northparkes, where Sandvik and Rio have already implemented autonomous equipment, Philpott claims not one job was lost as a result of the technology.
And according to Philpott today’s workers are vital to securing the success of this new technology.
People are most critical to the success of automation,” he said.
“At the end of the day you can have the best technology in the world, but if the people do not buy into the technology, if the people do not know how to operate the technology and do not support the technology then you’re setting yourself up for failure.”