Exploring Autonomous Mining

Automation is rapidly growing in the mining industry. But what is it exactly, and how will it transform the industry globally? We sat down with Brunel’s mining experts Nathan Sharpe and Mark Crow to learn more about the technology, its benefits, challenges, and what the future of mining holds. 

What is autonomous mining? 

In short, autonomous mining is the shift from traditional, labor-intensive mining to more digitally automated processes. It can take the form of either process / software automation (IT automation) or the use of self-driving robotic technology to mining vehicles and equipment (OT automation). 

“Autonomous equipment, vehicles and processes have been part of the mining sector for quite some time already, but it's becoming more prevalent now as technology has advanced,” said Crow. “Automation isn't isolated or exclusive to the mining sector. It's also in construction, automotive, oil and gas, the manufacturing sectors, but fundamentally around mining in particular.”

What are the benefits of autonomous mining? 

In three words: safety, time, money.

“It’s the way of the future in terms of mining, and it goes hand-in-hand with safety because less people are involved around big machinery,” said Sharpe. 

“Previously, the technology wasn't available in order to drive the kind of efficiencies in automation that the operators were looking for, but now they're starting to understand the benefits: safety is a key factor, and there is of course a glaringly obvious reason for it, which is the bottom line,” added Crow. 

Enhanced efficiency both onsite and in the office

Automation in mine equipment and vehicles such as Autonomous Haulage Systems (AHS) can improve safety and productivity of a mine site, while mining software automation and autonomous data analytics provides constant streams of information to shed light on trends, track efficiencies, spot workflow barriers, enhance transparency and gain deeper insights of return on investment (ROI). 

“It's driving efficiencies, more automated processes, and less man-hours — meaning that systems can run 24/7 with relatively very little downtime and be far more operationally efficient. So there's certainly a desire for groups to move more towards this,” said Crow.

Making the entire supply chain more efficient 

“It captures the whole supply chain,” added Sharpe. “People think automation is just around the trucks driving around the production sites, but it's actually everything from rail to the processing plants to the porting system where the ore body gets put under the ship and taken away,” said Sharpe. “It's creating efficiencies around the whole supply chain of mining.”

“So it's now looking at how it can harness modern day technology in order to improve efficiencies across varying degrees of its different operations, from vehicles, rail, supply and processing with automated process control systems to parts like drilling and so on,” said Crow. “It's looking at all different elements and coming back into the corporate offices, looking at the data, seeing trends driving efficiencies and looking to harness it the best they can. But it’s not something that’s happening overnight.”

How are the technologies of automated mining connected? 

“In mining, you've got OT (operational technology,) and IT (information technology). OT is fundamentally the technology out in the field, such as drilling and AHS trucks. That operational technology has to integrate to information technology because fundamentally, it all has to be reported back to the head office. So whatever the autonomous capacity, it will have to integrate with some kind of IT interface in order to be observed, maintained and reported on. That's where the data component will come in and how they can drive efficiencies, understand how the equipment is functioning, and so on.” 

How will mining automation transform the mining workforce? 

What will mining automation mean for those who have spent their careers within the traditional mining sector? 

“I think there's definitely an opportunity to transition people that now physically perform mining roles into technology roles, but it is very much a different skill set,” said Sharpe. “So, it's not going to be the traditional roles that people are looking for; it's going to be a lot more data-driven roles.”

“Whenever you hear the term automation in any kind of organization, fundamentally that means a knock-on effect with regards to staffing alignments,” added Crow. “However, I've seen over the last 20 years working in automation that whilst the roles we're discussing will mean the reduction in manned vehicles and requirements, it will also mean the create a new wave of roles that haven't been seen before in mining, and they're still going to want to retain the subject matter expertise of those individuals who have been in the field for 10, 20, 30 years. It just means that there’ll be an upskilling opportunity.”

“If you think about the change management required to transition people from roles that are no longer applicable to mining production, then you don't want to lose that experience,” adds Sharpe. “So you've got to transition people across to a new operating platform.” 

Where will mining automation be in 5-10 years? 

“I think in general, most major mining organizations in five years time will be significantly underway in the process of implementing automation,” said Sharpe.

Looking for a mining service provider? 

Brunel offers mining consultancy and recruitment services in over 40 countries worldwide. Our mining team offers services in disciplines such as process controls, SCADA, AHS, robotics, data analytics, process improvement, project management, change management, statement of work, contingent labor hire, and search and selection campaigns. 

“The benefit of Brunel is that we are a genuine global partner,” said Crow. “Secondly, we are subject matter experts, and thirdly we understand the discipline.” 

Curious how Brunel can help you transform your mining project? Contact us to learn more.

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