Human arms? Less and less is required

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Photo credits: dominik_photography

In the iron extraction plants, located in the north-west of the country, it is common practice to use automated vehicles for the transport of materials. Similar machines will soon be used for drilling and quarrying. And employment levels drop

The world of machines is moving forward inexorably, leaving us humans… to watch. Already now, he tells the long reportage of the site MIT Technology Review. In the remote regions of Australia, where open iron mines are almost as large as our own provinces, more and more vehicles and machinery are moving and operating on their own, animated by “chips”. The special mining trucks stand out, each of which is the size of a small two-storey house: no one has a driver, nor anyone else on board. The Rio Tinto mining company has 73 of these titans, capable of transporting iron ore around the clock in four mines in this “Mars red” corner of north-west Australia.

In the West Angelas mine, self-propelled vehicles are already working alongside automated rock drilling rigs. The company is also updating the locomotives that carry the ore hundreds of miles to the port, technical changes that will allow trains to move not only independently, but also to be loaded and unloaded automatically. These operations in Australia are a preview of a more efficient future for all Rio Tinto mines, an evolution that will inevitably lead to a reduction in human personnel.

The combination of the increasing capacity and falling costs of robotic technology is allowing mining and oil companies to “redesign” the tiring and dangerous business of obtaining resources from the ground. In this choice, Rio Tinto is not alone: BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, is also stocking trucks and unmanned drilling systems in its Australian mines. Suncor, Canada’s largest oil company, has begun testing its mining lots in Alberta with its own trucks. Technically, Rio Tinto uses driverless trucks supplied by Japanese Komatsu: the vehicles drive along the routes using precision GPS systems, detecting edges and any obstacles through radar and laser sensors.

Rob Atkinson, head of productivity at Rio Tinto, says: “The existing fleet, along with other automation projects, is already bearing fruit. Driverless trucks have proven to be about 15% cheaper to handle than vehicles with humans at the wheel – a significant saving, as freight transport is by far the highest of a mine’s operating costs. We intend to fuel this evolution as quickly as possible; autonomous vehicles and automatic machines can work non-stop, and are also more predictable and safer in the way they operate, without ever wasting time. And they wear out less, because they are always operated correctly.

Moreover, according to experts, the mining environment is one of the places that lends itself more easily to automation than others such as transport and public roads, because it is kept under strict control. The delicate problem of employment remains.

Atkinson acknowledges that these technological developments inevitably lead to a reduction in staff levels, even if some new jobs are generated in the maintenance and management of autonomous machines: “It is a situation that we must manage carefully, but it is also a reality

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