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Latest news: robotics in mining

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23 March 2023

Enhancement or replacement? How technology will affect Australian mining workers 

The mining industry is something of an oddity with regard to embracing change and technology in its workforce. The sector is historically resistant to sweeping changes, with years of consistent profits giving miners little reason to change what has been working. Between 2019 and 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia’s resources and energy exports reached a massive $221.1bn (A$319.1), while the mining sector alone was responsible for 10.4% of national GDP over this period. 

The industry has also been encouraged to stay the course partly because of the considerable risk that work in the sector poses to its employees. With the potential for vehicular accidents, explosions and cave-ins and the release of toxic gases in underground chambers all very real dangers, that workers in no other industry face on a regular basis, miners are encouraged to persist with practices that have seen injury and fatality figures fall in recent years. 

In 2020, Australia’s mining fatality rate was lower than that of agriculture, transport, construction and manufacturing. Between 2003 and 2015 the fatality rate in the sector plummeted by 65%, demonstrating that, for all the tangible dangers facing miners, the Australian sector has effectively implemented practices and processes to limit these risks.

17 November 2022

Better late than never: Rio Tinto launches long-awaited Gudai-Darri mine

The Gudai-Darri iron ore mine is Rio Tinto’s first greenfield mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia, in more than a decade, and has endured its share of setbacks. Already producing ore almost a year behind schedule, and with a budget creeping above $3bn, the mine has the potential to go down as one of the more expensive and infamous missteps in the company’s recent history. 

Yet the swathe of innovative technology in place at Gudai-Darri means hope remains high for the project, and Rio Tinto is optimistic that the mine will aid future production of the company’s flagship Pilbara Blend product of iron ore, which makes up around 70% of the miner’s total supply of the ore. 

Production is expected to reach full capacity during 2023, ahead of a potentially rosy future. The mine has an expected life of more than 40 years and an annual capacity of 43Mt (million tonnes), and a feasibility study to support an expansion of this new hub is also underway. 

In a statement Simon Trott, Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive, said: “The commissioning of Gudai-Darri represents the successful delivery of our first greenfield mine in over a decade. It sets a new standard for Rio Tinto mine developments through its deployment of technology and innovation.”

26 October 2022

Comment: Robotics – indispensable tools for the future of mining 

In its report, Thematic Research: Robotics in Mining, GlobalData says that robotic technology is indispensable for any mining company that wishes to be competitive. The three common goals of mining companies – safety, productivity and sustainability – can all be supported by robotic deployment. And, it is a growing market: the revenue of the industrial robotics sector was $14.6bn in 2020, and this is forecast to reach $352.1bn by 2030. The CAGR over this decade will be 37.5%. 

A surefire way to improve safety is to remove human workers from hazardous areas. Drilling rigs can instead be operated and supervised remotely, rather than on-site. Haulage can be done without human drivers, underground tasks can be done without a human presence, and the inspection of high walls or underwater regions can be done by drones, land rovers and underwater robots. 

At the BHP Nickel West drill mine in 2018, a dangerously over-pressurised water pipe was detected far underground in a drill hole. BHP enlisted the robotics expertise of Woodside and Deakin University, as well as staff from the University of Texas, Clearpath and NASA. The robot was remotely guided through the tunnel and up to the pipe. The cutting of the pipe was successful and a human team then entered to retrieve the robot. The high-risk operation would have been far more dangerous, and likely less successful, were it not for the robotic equipment and the ability to operate it from a safe distance. It also streamlined the entire process; there were less than two weeks between the detection of the issue and its resolution.