Drones are the new big thing in mining. For three years, mining giant BHP Billiton has been trialling drones that can provide real-time aerial footage and 3D maps of its mining sites, saving the company’s Queensland mine sites an estimated A$5 million (US$3.8 million) a year.

But the mining industry is no stranger to harnessing new technology. Autonomous vehicles may still be little more than proof-of-concept in many industries, but in mining, it has been a reality for quite a while now, says Bill Johnston, Minister for Mines and Petroleum, for the state of Western Australia.

Over 200 autonomous trucks operate in the mining region of Pilbara in the north of the state, shuttling mined material back and forth. “We’ve got autonomous drill rigs in action – not in testing mode, but in operation at mine sites,” he tells GovInsider.

Mining by remote control

These autonomous trucks are “very advanced” – for instance, they are programmed to not damage the roads by repeatedly driving over the same spots, the Minister continues.

Mine sites are often located in rural areas, far away from the nearest satellite cities. The use of autonomous vehicles means that they can be remotely controlled from centres thousands of kilometres away. “You can have workers in their home environment or in their regular city office, but still operating the trucks,” Johnston explains.

These control centres can also collect data from the mine sites, which engineers can analyse to identify risk, for instance. “One of our universities has developed an app that allows employers to input data that they’re collecting from their workplaces that can identify trends in risk exposure for workers,” the Minister says.

Mining company Rio Tinto announced in December that it will be retrofitting an additional 48 haul trucks to be fully autonomous, and when done, 130 trucks or 30% of its fleet in the Pilbara region will be made up of autonomous vehicles. The retrofit programme would add an estimated A$500 million of free cashflow annually from 2021, and last year, each of Rio’s autonomous haul trucks operated an additional 1,000 hours on average, according to The West Australian.

Cutting energy use

Companies in Western Australia are also exploring the use of electric vehicles underground. It is costly to pump clean air into and remove diesel fumes from underground operations, but “if you were to electrify the underground vehicles, then you could reduce the amount of air supply that you need, and reduce energy consumption,” says Johnston.

For an industry that is notoriously energy-intensive, this presents an opportunity for companies to use renewable energy. Besides going electric, solar energy could be the answer for sunny Western Australia, the Minister believes.

Technological advances have led to the development of “modular, transportable solar energy supply systems”, which reduces the amount of “fixed infrastructure” needed at a mine site, which only has a lifespan of a few years. “You can take your renewable energy systems off that site and take them to the next project,” Johnston says.

Jobs and retraining

As autonomous trucks, trains and drill rigs become the norm, Western Australia’s workforce has to be prepared for these new ways of working. The Government is teaming up with Rio Tinto to launch new high school and college courses on automation technology from 2019.

“Automation, technology and innovation will transform a range of industries and create new opportunities, and we need to be ahead of the curve to ensure our workforce can take advantage of that,” Education and Training Minister Sue Ellery was quoted as saying. These certificates will represent Australia’s first nationally accredited courses in automation, the report added.

Western Australia’s mines contribute a generous proportion to the local and national income: 90% of the state’s and 41% of the country’s merchandise exports income come from Western Australian mining and petroleum, according to 2017 statistics.

As drones fly overhead and trucks zip around on the ground, it is clear that the scale of automation in these mines shows that it could make a huge difference to jobs, energy use and income across the state and country.

Images by Rio Tinto and Graeme ChurchardCC BY 2.0