Mindless mining

Hand in hand with Rio Tinto, USyd has played a central role in automating mining

Rio Tinto has a special relationship with the University of Sydney. The multinational mining corporation is one of the world’s largest, generating US $34 billion in revenue in 2016. In 2007, Rio Tinto partnered with the University to undertake a joint research project, the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation (RTCMA), which sits under the University’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics. RTCMA was charged with creating Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’, which involves automating all aspects of a mine’s operation.

The project was established as a 12 year partnership, which means it’s nearing the end of its tenure. Over the past decade, RTCMA has developed automated technology expressly for Rio Tinto’s Australian iron ore mines. In May this year, Rio Tinto Growth and Innovation group executive Stephen McIntosh said that productivity gains partially generated from RTCMA’s research output should amount to US$5 billion in additional free cash flow for Rio Tinto by 2021.

 RTCMA has been referred to as both “the single largest investment in robotics research anywhere in the world” and “the world’s biggest commercial privately funded external robotics initiative”. It is one of just five centres that Rio Tinto has established with universities around the world, and is the only one devoted exclusively to automation.

Autobots rollout

RCTMA has been at the forefront of developing Rio Tinto’s autonomous drill technology: equipment that allows for one operator to remotely control four drills, for example, from anywhere in the world. Early reports have shown that, within less than a year, Rio Tinto’s automatic drilling system has created “significant improvement in labour productivity” in the Pilbara; the region of Western Australia from which Rio Tinto has extracted five billion tonnes of iron ore in less than 50 years.

This is accompanied by developments in automated transportation. According to a Rio Tinto report released last week, 20 per cent of the mining company’s trucks in the Pilbara are now self-driving vehicles. Despite its short lifespan, the transition to automation is already paying off for the mining company. Advantages of automation include enhanced predictability and efficiency: machines that can work for 24 hours straight don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks or shift swaps, nor do they fluctuate in their performance. Last year, each of these automated trucks operated 1,000 hours more than their man-driven counterparts, and at a 15 per cent lower cost. This is a significant saving, as haulage is a mine’s largest operational cost by far.

Rio Tinto’s rail network is also on its way to becoming fully automated: named the ‘AutoHaul’ system, driverless trains can operate continuously without shift changes, driving almost 10km/h faster than manned trains and running at double the frequency. “Once the system knows how to drive perfectly, it drives perfectly every time,” according to Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore group. It is intended that the autonomous hauling system will be fully implemented by the end of next year.

‘Jobs and growth’

Of course, when machines can do the jobs of humans, a company needs fewer workers, and the rigour with which Rio Tinto is pursuing its ‘innovation’ agenda shows no sign of dissipating. “We’re going to continue as aggressively as possible down this path,” said Rob Atkinson, who leads productivity efforts at Rio Tinto, in an interview with the Technology Review late last year.

In the same interview, Tom Simonite wrote that “Rio Tinto intends its automated operations in Australia to preview a more efficient future for all its mines — one that will also reduce the need for human miners”. Indeed, a recent report stated that “entire mines have been designed and built around automated systems so as to minimise the human presence.”

These developments are not confined to Rio Tinto either: there is evidence that the technology has wider applicability. BHP Billiton is also using automated trucks and drills on its Australian iron ore mines, and Canada’s largest oil company, Suncor, has begun to use driverless trucks on Canadian oil sands. It is foreseeable that developments in the technology will have a great impact upon the entire sector, including employment.

A key way that mining activity on Australian soil is justified and made palatable to an increasingly skeptical public is through the promise of employment. The new Adani coalmine is being sold to the public almost exclusively on the prospect of supposed new jobs. Given that automation in mining is burgeoning, however, rhetoric that espouses the virtue of new mines because of the consequent employment creation should be carefully scrutinised — for how long will these jobs exist when cheaper and more “productive” alternatives are being “aggressively” pursued?

Even so, according to Richard Dennis of the Australia Institute, mining companies often use economic modeling and claims of job creation to recruit community support. “Mining isn’t the only industry that can create ‘indirect jobs’,” he writes. “It’s just the only industry that spends millions of dollars each year paying economists to estimate such ‘benefits’, and millions more spruiking them to the media.”

Moreover, as these companies look to maximise their profits on the back of increased productivity facilitated by automation and research partnerships with the University, it is worth considering where this money goes. Last month, Reserve Bank of Australia deputy governor Guy Debelle warned that a significant portion of super profits generated by mining giants like Rio Tinto and BHP were likely to flow offshore in the form of dividend payments.

In this context, questioning the University’s multimillion-dollar relationship with one of the world’s mining giants seems appropriate. “We would not have been able to achieve these productivity gains without collaboration,” according to Rio Tinto’s former technology and innovation chief Greg Lilleyman. As its partnership with the University is due to round up after the next two years, will the University continue to play an essential role in lining Rio Tinto’s pockets? Demands for divestment from mining have mounted over the past decade, but the call of cash may well remain too lucrative.