Reason #1: Boosting Productivity
Globally, "There's a trend of taking the operator out of the equation and letting the machine drive productivity" said Michael Beare of SRK Consulting to Chris Lo from mining-technology.com in November 2011; a trend that "unlocks non-stop production and mines with fewer people", he added.
The final objective of the companies engaged in this technological race is to run fully automated mine. Rio Tinto believes this investment will help boosting the output by 60% by 2015.
A February 2012 report from economist and former government forecaster Brian Fisher, who was commissioned by Rio Tinto, shows productivity in the Australian mining industry has been relatively flat at least for the past 20 to 30 years.
The unmanned mine haul and transport technologies are believed to allow cutting costs and ramping up production even in the face of a labor shortage, particularly in Australia.
Reason #2: Meeting The Massive Demand From China
This explains why the shift to driverless trucks which started a decade ago in the South American copper mines is now moving faster in Australia than anywhere else. Western Australia is the China’s first supplier for raw materials and produces 40% of the world's iron ore.
For years, the challenge was to get always bigger trucks. But the biggest trucks are not big enough and not fast enough to feed the unprecedented growth of the commodities-hunger worldwide giant. Their operating cycle is limited by human variables (time off, changing shift, fatigue, driving problems due to eyestrain or weather conditions, etc.) Unmanned vehicle are only limited by wear and tear which creates opportunities for setting-up cost competitive strategy.
Reason #3: Tackling The Skills Shortage
Rio Tinto’s aim is to build operations "where people are geographically agnostic", said Andrew Stokes, global surface mining leader in Rio’s technology and innovation department in Australia in a recent interview to The Globe and Mail.
This is a way to ease the Australian skills shortage by creating more attractive and cost effective jobs in the remote control room, located in urban areas. Finding skilful labour interested in working in remote mining regions is a permanent, tough and costly challenge for the company. Along Abrahamsson and al. from the Swedish Department of Human Work Science, Luleå University of Technology, "Most mining companies want to avoid a fly in – fly out situation, as it could create social instability of societies and cause trouble in the workplace" (Lena Abrahamsson, Bo Johansson and Jan Johansson, Future of metal mining: Sixteen predictions, Int. J. Mining and Mineral Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 3, 200)
As a kind of paradox, these developments will also mean job loss, especially for train drivers but the overall improvement of productivity in the companies and the stronger growth countries are said to be able to easily balance this. Flexibility will certainly be required: not sure truck or train drivers can easily be converted to robot truck maintenance specialists.
Booming Commodities Prices Make It Possible
The rising commodity prices over the past several years made this huge, though undisclosed, investment cost of development possible, and only for the top majors of the industry (mainly Rio Tinto and BHP-Billiton).
The potential impact of the end of the commodities supercycle, if it happens, on the future of the programs is unknown, but the amount of money already invested will certainly have a decisive influence on the decision. If the programs could experience some delays due to a lack of funding, automation appears to be definitely the future of mining and will then be hard to stop.
The technological achievements are in line with the huge engaged investments. Rio Tinto’s is "at the forefront of this technology worldwide" and is in fact "even more advanced than the work being done for the US defense forces" along Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, one of the world's leading researchers into large field robots, and also the director of the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation at the University of Sydney.
Unmanned Mine Haul And Transport Technology: Further Applications
The interest for such development goes far beyond the present mining industry: such remote controlled mining operation could also address part of extraterrestrial mining challenges and, in a first approach, help to the extraction of the lunar resources.