What is autonomous mining?

As mechanical and driverless technologies continue to develop rapidly, industries are now on the verge of taking these once futuristic ideas and making them part of our everyday lives. The mining industry in particular, appears poised for a major revolution – but what exactly is autonomous mining and how will it affect our people, workplaces and economy?

What is autonomous mining?

Autonomous mining describes any technology-driven activity which either reduces or eliminates the need for people to carry out manual tasks associated with the operation of a mine site.

This can take the form of either Information Technology (IT) automations which focus on the optimisation of digital processes, or Operational Technology (OT) automations which control physical events or processes such as robotic equipment and self-driving vehicles.

First gaining momentum in the early 2000s, major mining operators such as Rio Tinto and BHP began investing in autonomous equipment, vehicles and processes, with an initial focus on haulage and drilling. Since then, most of Australia’s leading miners have introduced some level of autonomous activity or strategy into their operations. While interest in autonomous mining is peaking, adoption is still in its infancy, with only an estimated 3% of the industry’s mobile equipment currently running autonomously.

What are the benefits of autonomous mining? 

Safety, productivity and efficiency. Automation will vastly improve the safety of Australian mining operations. By adopting automated equipment which can manoeuvre in difficult or unsafe areas unmanned, mining companies can reduce the number of miners exposed to high risk situations. 

Industry research shows a significant boon in productivity where automation is applied. They report that automation can reduce costs by 30%, increase productivity 15-20%, lower maintenance expenses by 17%, and even reduce tire wear by 7%. Fortescue Metals Group, which recently introduced 112 driverless trucks, state that their autonomous fleet has delivered a 30% improvement in productivity. 

Automation also enables mining companies to enhance their energy efficiency by ‘controlling the controllables’ – increasing consistency and reducing the variables inherent in the human operation of mining equipment. Intelligent sensor technologies provide a highly-controlled level of situational awareness which increases productivity while also reducing emissions, fuel use and operating costs.

How will mining automation transform the mining workforce?

The change will be seismic. Replacing manual or non-digitised processes with digital alternatives, or trading older technologies with newer digital platforms, combined with physical OT automations, will amount to a complete revolution in how mining sites operate. 

While the volume of certain roles will inevitably decrease, the digital transformation of Australia’s Mining Industry will also create opportunities by introducing and stimulating new disciplines, job types and career opportunities. Skillsets in demand are likely to include autonomous maintenance leaders, cyber security experts, data analysts, drone operators, man-machine teaming managers, remote control centres, enterprise platform experts and field support to name a few. The challenge for workers affected by autonomous future workers, will be to find ways to apply their existing knowledge and expertise to the new needs, most likely upskilling along the way.

The good news is employers are looking at automation as something that will reshape their hiring needs, not something that will simply replace the need for a human workforce. Research from McKinsey suggests that while 30% of roles could be altered by technological innovations, major mining companies such as BHP, Rio Tinto and FMG have made firm commitments to reposition and reinvest in training which will equip and upskill their personnel.

How will the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) affect mining over the next 5-10 years? 

Given the specific needs and highly-regulated nature of Australian mining, the introduction of an IIoT will need to be both flexible and robust in order to meet these requirements. An effective IIoT will need to include high levels of cyber security, cross compatibility, operational precision, operational resilience, consistent connectivity, automation and serviceability.

With this in mind, the key areas where we are likely to see a mining IIoT are: automation, robotics and operational hardware; digitally enabled workforces; integrated enterprise, platforms and ecosystems; and next-generation analytics and decision support.

 

Are you looking for a mining recruitment partner? 

Brunel specialises in understanding the technical, specialised and critical skills projects and organisations need to achieve their goals. With a strong history of working with the Australian mining industry and an international pedigree in the provision of highly-skilled roles, Brunel is ideally equipped to support your path towards an autonomous future.

Whether you need to appoint a handful of key personnel, are seeking an entire workforce or engage us on a delivered outcome basis, Brunel has knowledge and reach to deliver the people, skills and outcomes your business needs to thrive.

About the author

Mark has over 20 years’ recruitment industry experience, specialising in the Information Technology personnel needs of Financial Services, Mining and Oil & Gas clients in both Australia and the United Kingdom. Drawing from his unique knowledge of IT disciplines and newly emerging skillsets, Mark excels at connecting organisations with the highly-specialised workers they need to capitalise on the rapidly changing digital, autonomy and tech fields.

Mark Crow

General Manager, ICT

+61 7 3007 7615