Cooperation between man and machine is key in the future of mining

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Cooperation between man and machine is key in the future of mining

Despite polarizing arguments, manned and unmanned vehicles both hold significant benefits for the mining industry. Miners should look at identifying what mix of human labor and automation is right for their operation.

While studying up on automation in mining, one will generally run across two perspectives. The first perspective is that of automation supporters touting it as ‘the’ new disruptive technology that will solve nearly all mine safety issue while simultaneously creating dramatic improvements in productivity. The other perspective is that of human labor supporters raising warning flags that automation will eliminate most human-based jobs, leaving a working class unemployed and communities trampled and destitute while corporations line their pockets with profits.

With strong polarizing influencing tugging on this issue, what is the actual position that automation will eventually take? According to Accenture’s Nigel Court, the most realistic place is likely somewhere in the middle.  “Automation is now being looked at not as a panacea to fix productivity and efficiency on site, rather people are focusing on how it can be applied to solve specific problems encountered on site,” Court told Australian Mining’s Cole Latimer in his article A Revolution Revolt? The Next Stage of Mining Automation. Court went on to explain that one of Accenture’s clients was considering full site automation, but after evaluation “they’ve come to realize that a combination of both manned and unmanned [is needed] to gain top performance.”

Why might a mixed solution be the best?

Humans are well equipped for more complex cognitive skills such as adaptation, critical thinking, and creativity. Where mining jobs require troubleshooting and problem solving, creating solutions and making decisions based on data analysis, and adapting solutions to a variety of variables, human labor far outshines machination.

Conversely, humans are not especially good at dull or repetitive tasks (we get bored or tired resulting in a loss of precision), and we generally like to avoid jobs that are dirty and dangerous. By design, machines/robots are much more accurate than humans, making them better suited for repetitive tasks that require precision over long periods of time. In dirty and dangerous tasks, safety would dictate that substituting human labor for machine labor is the best option.

Automated vehicles may provide the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity that today’s miners are seeking, but that’s not to say that automation is always the best solution. Humans deal very well with anomalies where machines may have trouble. For example, Court described a situation where automation technologies, many still in the testing/proving stages, may actually detract from efficiency:

“With the inbuilt safety and proximity programs, we see automated vehicles detect and issue on their path… and they automatically shut down, without informing the workshop why it has shut down, simply that it has. This requires an operator to take time and come down from the workshop to restart the vehicle and deal with the issue at hand, be it stopped due to another vehicle or an obstacle in the way.”

In order to resolve this type of issue, Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) installs camera feeds so that remote operators can visually survey the area surrounding the unmanned vehicle to diagnose the stoppage. Additionally, ASI engineers are working on sensor technology that roots out false positives in obstacle detection algorithms as well as dynamic obstacle avoidance software that can safely navigate around unexpected hazards without the intervention of a remote operator.

While automation systems may have some drawbacks, the productivity gains may surpass occasional hiccups. Rio Tinto recently reported that autonomous mining vehicles in several Pilbara locations are performing on average 12% better than their manned counterparts. Over time, this type of performance may pile up to millions of dollars in potential savings.

“Automation can be the right solution for a business,” continued Court, “but many in the industry aren’t seeing the future as 100% automation on sites; it may be a mix of 80% automated fleets, or even a 50/50 mix, it really depends on what is right for the operation.”

Adoption of mining automation is certainly on the uptick, but we will likely not see a time when all manned positions are overrun by robots. Both humans (with critical thinking and adaptability skills) and machines (with precision and predictability over long periods of time) working together to achieve greater productivity and efficiency should spell the foreseeable future of the mining industry.

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