A study by the University of Queensland has found increasing levels of automation and remote control in mining may lead to fewer jobs in mining communities.
The report, entitled Exploring the social dimensions of autonomous and remote operation mining: Applying Social License in Design, from the University's Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (CSRM) found that as automation increases within the industry, with more driverless trucks and trains safety is increased but the number of on-site jobs decreases.
According to the report "these new technologies offer the potential for lower labour and operating costs, improved operational efficiency and a safer, more attractive working environment – all contributing to a more competitive mining industry".
However it added that "while the broader economic benefits of these technologies could be substantial, there may also be some undesired social impacts associated with the large-‐scale uptake of autonomous and remote operation technologies".
It comes only a month after BHP opened its new automation centre and shifted focus towards what it calls "next generation mining".
Professor David Brereton, the deputy director of research and integration at UQ's Sustainable Minerals Institute, the leader of the Mineral Futures Collaboration Cluster, and one of the report's contributors, said miners can not afford to ignore the potential social impacts of large scale automation.
"While the large-scale uptake of automation will improve efficiency and create a safer, more attractive working environment, a reduction in on-site roles is likely to reduce economic activity in the local and regional area, and could lead to a loss of population and services over the longer term,” Brereton said.
The reports states that "while large scale automation may lead to reduced growth in mining employment, it is unlikely to result in a net reduction in mining jobs, given current growth trajectories".
This was supported by a study carried out by BAEconomics, which concludes that while the costs associated with automation were substantial, they were "far outweighed by the benefits they can deliver".
BAEconomics said mine automation technology would help reduce safety risks to workers and make operations more profitable and efficient.
It said the benefits of increasing profitability would help to counteract rising challenges to Australia's industry, including declining ore grades, environmental challenges, and carbon pricing.
It said it would also help the industry deal with the rising problem of skills shortages.
BAEconomics said any decline in the mining industry would "equally be expected to slow employment and income growth across Australian states and territories".
"From this perspective, concerns about a reduction in employment in the mining industry as a result of automation are misplaced," it said.
"While some specific roles are likely to disappear over time, employment overall would be expected to grow faster while Australia maintains its competitive position."
"Relocating challenging new jobs to more desirable locations will furthermore broaden employment opportunities and attract more talent in addition to easing overall labour constraints in the Australian economy."
This view was supported in part by the latest research out of the University of Queensland.
"Some operations roles, such as driving trucks and trains and manually operating drilling rigs and underground equipment, are likely to disappear over the longer term," the new report states.
"In an open pit mine, in pit roles could be reduced by around one half.
"New roles in equipment maintenance, data processing, systems and process analysis, operational control and mine planning are likely to emerge."
However Brereton added that most at risk in this automation push are Aboriginal Australians in remote communities, who previously benefited from the employment and development opportunities provided by resources companies.
“A growing number of major mining companies have made both voluntary and binding commitments to promote Aboriginal training, employment and business development.
“However, many of the entry-level jobs currently held by Aboriginal workers in the mining industry are likely to disappear as automation and remote operation becomes more widespread,” Brereton said.
In the report's summary, it calls on the government to address the potential social impacts automation may have.
“A positive step would be for industry and government to work together on a strategic impact assessment. This could help to quantify the implications for the workforce and regional economies, and make for a smoother transition,” he said.
“This is not about slowing the pace of technological change. Experience has shown that such attempts rarely, if ever, succeed. But we should be working to ensure that the benefits of innovation are broadly distributed and that people living in regional and remote Australia aren't disadvantaged.”