Could Covid-19 Pandemic Give a Boost to Autonomous Mining?

Mining companies are seeing their operations disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with mine projects either closing down or severely reducing staff presence as measures to slow the spread of the virus. It seems that this experience may provide yet another incentive for the biggest players to seek a futher increase in the automated mining space to bring their respektive projects a step closer to an entirely robotic workforce. For example, uptake of automated mine solutions including self-driving haul trucks and remote operations centres has been slow but steady. One of the earliest moves into automation came with global mining giant Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future initiative in 2008.
From a remote operations centre in Perth, Western Australia, workers operate autonomous mining vehicles at mines more than 1,200km away in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which is hailed as a hotspot of automation innovation. Around a third of the haul truck fleet at Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mines are autonomous, which means that these trucks can continuously track the locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles without human presence.Rio Tinto added a new facet to its automated operation in 2019 with the deployment of its AutoHaul system, which brought autonomous trains to the Pilbara project. The system is the largest autonomous railway in the world and can transport approximately a million tonnes of iron ore per day.
The Syama underground gold mine became the world’s first fully-autonomous mine operation. Designed in partnership with Swedish engineering company Sandvik, the mine operates with fully automated trucks, loaders and drills.The fully autonomous operation means that the mine can operate 24 hours a day, with all operations overseen from a remote operation centre. Resolute Mining says this keeps productivity high with relatively low costs, and the automated systems allow for consistent production output.Sandvik provides two key product lines for mining companies looking to take a more hands-off approach. AutoMine covers all aspects of automation from individual pieces of equipment through larger machines to autonomous vehicle fleets. OptiMine, used at Syama and increasingly being adopted by other mining projects, seeks to improve efficiency in mining operations by providing a suite of analytics and process optimisation tools.
Autonomous mining solutions appear attractive – they’re purported to improve efficiency, productivity and safety. Now that the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak has made the immediate future of several mining operations around the world uncertain, there may be an increased appeal and demand for solutions to reduce the human workforce at mine sites. But barriers to autonomous operations remain. Some projects, such as Resolute Mining’s Syama, are well suited to automation because of the methods and processes used for extraction. That is not the case for every mining project due to concerns that a human element is a vital part of safe, effective operations.Another element that attracts criticism is the replacement of human workers with robots. The benefit to local communities and governments of job creation when a new mining project is proposed is also a key factor in those projects getting the go-ahead – but an autonomous operation removes part or all of that benefit.