Mines without miners?
Not quite. Still, a technology boom in robots, drones, driverless trucks and pilotless trains is beginning to reshape one of the world’s most labor-intensive industries, portending automation of logistics, supply chains and mapping and allowing development of mines in regions once thought too dangerous or remote to exploit.
Already about 200 driverless haul trucks are working iron ore mines, mainly in Australia. Meanwhile, mining giant Rio Tinto Ltd., which funds one of the world’s largest non-military robotics programs, will soon use unmanned trains to deliver cargo to the coast and set drones aloft at its remote mines.
Drones can monitor stockpiles, map exploration targets and track equipment and will eventually deliver parcels to workshops according to Accenture Plc. -- and on a schedule far ahead of that envisioned by Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos, who one day wants Amazon’s books and DVDs delivered instantly to customers via miniature helicopters.
“Come and see me in about October,” said John McGagh, head of innovation at Rio Tinto in Brisbane, Australia, where staff use the world’s largest multi-content touchscreen to monitor mining operations from Utah to Queensland. “You will see drones flying around. That’s not so long away.”
Technological advances in the development of drones and robots will help create mines of the future in remote locations such as Mongolia that can be directed from NASA-inspired control rooms in first world cities in the U.S. and Australia. BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s biggest, Anglo American Plc and Rio are among miners ramping up this automated global high-tech race, betting new equipment will help cut costs and improve returns as well as allowing them to exploit deposits so far considered too complex or too dangerous for humans.
While drones swarm overhead, the mines of 2030 may also see scuttling robots which map underground chambers to within a millimeter of detail with lasers or use automated drills to separate waste from valuable ore as they burrow into rock. At waste dumps, so-called molecular sponges created from crab shells will be used to extract every last metal particle.
“Drones will be able to shorten supply chains, and will change your ability to monitor, track and manage the key aspects of your mining business that are time critical in remote places,” said Nigel Court, Perth-based natural resources industry leader for Asia Pacific at Accenture. “One of the great things we’ll see with drones is immediate spare part delivery, literally within hours, where right now it can take days.”
Mining companies have the advantage of operating in often remote regions where drones aren’t likely to be threats to high-density populations. Amazon’s drones will operate in the thick of civilization, which explains the go-slow approach. The company envisions small helicopter-devices called Octocopters delivering packages weighing as much as 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms), its chief executive officer Bezos said in December.
Winning U.S. Federal Aviation Administration consent may take Amazon as long as a decade, according to John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
There are no good estimates on what drone and robot technology might save the $1 trillion global mining industry though there are hints based on current applications of smart technology. Rio’s use of sensors to fine tune copper processing has seen free cash flow improved by $80 million over the past year, according to CEO Sam Walsh, who’s reduced costs company-wide by $2.3 billion since he took his post in January 2013.
Australia’s mining industry alone spends about A$4 billion ($3.7 billion) a year on research and development, according to the country’s Bureau of Statistics. Rio spent $370 million on its 730-person technology and innovation unit in 2013, according to its annual report. Spending on the unit fell by 11 percent on the previous year as Rio pared its budget and compares with a 52 percent reduction in exploration expenditure.
Yet, only about 0.5 percent of the world’s fleet of about 40,500 mining haul trucks are currently driverless, and in many regions producers are likely to be slow to adopt new technology, said Brenton Saunders, a Sydney-based investment analyst with BT Investment Management Ltd., which manages about A$62 billion.
“The big issue is that in countries in South America or in South Africa, the cost of employing five guys to do the same job as your new flashy machinery is still cheaper than your new flashy machinery,” Saunders said by phone.
An automated haul truck costs between $3 million and $5 million, depending on its size and other specifications, according to Erie, Pennsylvania-based mining equipment researcher Peter Gilewicz at The Parker Bay Co.
Rio Tinto spokesman Bruce Tobin in Melbourne declined to comment on how quickly the company’s fleet will recoup the investment. The producer’s driverless trucks have already moved 130 million tons of material and traveled 2.3 million kilometers, equivalent to more than 57 trips around the equator.
Drones are already operating around the periphery of the mining business, said Ray Gillinder, managing director of HELImetrex Pty, which currently supplies four Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, as drones are officially known, to mining clients in Australia. Leighton Holdings Ltd.’s mining unit, which works for producers including Glencore Xstrata Plc, holds a license to operate UAVs in Australia and deploys them for aerial photography, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
“There will be loads and loads in use. We’re heading there in the next three years,” said Tom Tadrowski, executive director of Adelaide, Australia-based DroneMetrex Pty, which has flown the machines at OZ Minerals Ltd.’s South Australia copper mine, where they are fitted with deterrents to scare away curious wedge-tailed eagles.
A fully-automated mine, which offers the precision achieved in automaking, is probably only a decade away, according to Rowan Melrose, Brisbane-based president of automation and technology at equipment maker Sandvik AB’s mining unit.
Robot miners, with operators or supervisors based in control rooms a continent away, could change the equation for assets like Rio’s Resolution copper project in Arizona, which may become North America’s largest, according to Rio’s McGagh.
“This thing is 2.5 kilometers deep, and it’s 85 degrees Centigrade down there. You are going to have a lot of machines down there,” McGagh said.