Automation in mining has been around for a while. Many companies (with Rio Tinto pioneering the way) already boast driverless or teleoperated vehicles. However, automation’s potential for mining is only just beginning.
An Australian mining company, for example, is rolling out a fully autonomous gold mine in Mali, Africa. The move brought up concerns around displacement of jobs, especially local ones. Instead, the company claims that instead of displacing workers, they will be upskilled.
Concern around loss of employment isn’t new – in fact, it’s happened with every single Industrial Revolution so far. The move towards technology in Industry 4.0 (also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution) has caused panic and concern, especially in the mining sector. Will people lose their jobs? Will humans have no use anymore?
The reality is that many jobs will be upskilled or reskilled. Very few will be lost entirely.
The role of automation in mining isn’t to steal jobs. It is, rather, to make jobs safer, increase productivity and cut costs. Self-driving vehicles, for example, do not experience the same fatigue as a human worker. They essentially work 24/7, and require no breaks. But this does not necessarily have to be at the cost of the workforce.
Can everything be automated?
Most mining processes can be automated.
This doesn’t mean that the jobs that were previously done by humans will disappear from the workforce altogether. Workers will still need to supervise, control and monitor automated machines from remote locations. While machines can, potentially, one day learn to adapt and change, it is unlikely that they will ever be beyond requiring human intervention. Even simple things like repairs or problem solving require people.
Workers will also require training with mining automation, which will in turn produce more jobs.
Connectivity and autonomous mines
The autonomous and digital mine – Mine 4.0 – is made up of more than just automated mining trucks.
The ideal digital mine involves a multitude of Industry 4.0 technologies: automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and even quantum computing. The autonomous mine’s primary purpose is to create a more reliable, safer mine, but this won’t happen purely with automation. It requires the integrated effort of several technologies.
Bringing Industry 4.0 technologies into a mining system isn’t easy. Implementation can have a strong financial and structural impact. It will, however, mean saving costs in the long run. In the end, the cost of adoption pays itself off.
More than just automation
Most of the current autonomous trucks in mining are merely automated machines. AusIMM provide a good explanation of how they work. There’s no artificial intelligence involved in the process. But what if there was?
What if, with artificial intelligence, blockchain and automation, we could make mining sites autonomous? And mining trucks could be automated, have basic intelligence and more security?
Blockchain and AI could bring security and intelligence to autonomous vehicles to protect against interference, hacking and malfunctions.
Right now, we’re not quite at the point where we can use Industry 4.0 technologies to make intelligent, autonomous mines. The technologies are still progressing and becoming refined. Someday soon, though, an entirely autonomous mine that incorporates the blockchain, AI and automation could be reality.