23 Sep 2011

'Robot Trucks' To Drive The Mining Boom

By Malcolm King
Big Mining is calling for jobs to be protected as it fights the mining tax – but it's also investing in high tech robot trucks that don't need drivers at all, writes Malcolm King
This is a story about robots, propaganda and power.

Australian Mining recently released a collection of advertisements aimed at getting city folk onside to fight Gillard's proposed mining tax.

Australian Mining is a conglomerate made up of around 50 mining companies including Rio Tinto, Fortescue, BHP Billiton, OZ Minerals and Vale.

You can watch the ads here. The benefits of mining are humanised through short individual stories: a refugee who is now a mining executive, a woman who's enjoyed an unexpectedly diverse career in the industry, a medical researcher whose work on neonatal care has been financially assisted by Xstrata.

The campaign is the work of Lawrence Creative Strategy, the agency behind the Kevin '07 campaign as well as the Keep Mining Strong campaign. The campaign plays on nationalism and how these workers, and people like them, are making Australia strong through mining. It brings a tear to the eye.

But behind the scenes, the big boys — Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue — have been working on ways to improve productivity and overcome the skilled labour shortage.

In July Caterpillar Inc and Cat Dealer WesTrac signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Fortescue Metals Group to implement robot trucks focused on delivering productivity and performance gains for Fortescue's new Solomon iron ore mine.

An initial fleet of 12 Command 793F robot trucks — these babies weigh 700 tons and can carry a 240 ton load per truck — will be in Australia by late 2012 and approximately 45 robot trucks will be up and running by 2015.

"This agreement confirms and validates Caterpillar's commitment to our customers by producing state-of-the-art solutions that provide a significant step change in mining productivity and safety," said Chris Curfman, Vice President, Caterpillar Global Mining.

BHP plans to bring Caterpillar robot mining trucks to Olympic Dam in 2012/13.

BHP Billiton at Olympic Dam plans to move 410 million tonnes of material every year. The equipment purchase for the mine will be enormous, with 160 haul trucks and 150 ancillary heavy vehicles required, according to BHP's environmental impact statement on the Olympic Dam site. 

BHP recently advertised for an Autonomy Lead manager at the Olympic Dam mine. This position will "develop and implement an autonomous mining strategy for the open pit mine". Basically it involves liaising with key stakeholders to develop a strategy for a robot truck haulage system.

Is Waltzing Matilda still playing in your head while Rio Tinto, Fortescue and BHP scrap the mining truck drivers and import American robot trucks? But wait. There's more.

Have a quick look at the control room in the cinema version of Marie Bourgoin's story.  You'll see a NASA-style control room in Perth. It controls the autonomous systems at the mines — Komatsu robot trucks and underground robot trains working 1200 kilometres away in the Pilbara. That's the future of mining in Australia — robots.

Mining Australia didn't flog that fact in their TV ad campaign.

The technology behind the Caterpillar robot trucks was developed in partnership with the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers at CMU have been working on the technology since the mid-1980s.

It's pretty cool stuff — unless you're an Australian mining truck or train driver. Robot trucks don't need to be paid, nor do they need female company or toilet breaks. Robot trucks don't need to buy houses or eat either.

If you think a 700-ton robot trucks zipping around the Pilbara and the north of South Australia is out of this world, you would be right. This is the same technology developed in the US to create solder-less battlefields and drones. So when you next see an Australian Mining advertisement hailing the virtues of mining, be circumspect. If they had their way, miners would go the way of the tea lady.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

Posted Friday, September 23, 2011 - 18:50

'If they had their way, miners would go the way of the tea lady.'

That is the point of technology is it not? The conveyor belt replaces a hundred men etc.

Posted Monday, September 26, 2011 - 12:17

I'd like to see the next iteration of ads with individual robot stories

Posted Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - 09:49

Mining provides 40% of Australia's incoming cash and employs only 5% of its citizens - the idea that we need the skilled migration is a crock of shit.

If mining could, it woulds automate ALL its jobs and here is one example.

Put more money into our education, devalue our currency, back our manufacturing (real lasting jobs) and cut a migration program that is just there to boost growth figures by making housing in the middle of no-where (future slums)

Posted Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - 14:44

So the mining companies want to cut back on employment, so what's new and with all the crap they come up with that they are hard done by, can't afford taxes on Australia's minerals, can't afford to employ people but they can afford to line their own greedy pockets at our expence.

Same old bleeding shit from them, but a differant day.

It's about time these greedy mining mongrels were brought into line and stopped from ripping off Australians and Australia's resources.

Posted Sunday, November 13, 2011 - 22:56

I for one welcome our new robotic overlords. As someone who works in the mining technology industry, I think this could be great. We still need people servicing the trucks, managing the system, writing the software and making the hardware to make these vehicles autonomous. Australia could play a leading role in this new technology, our mining companies and people could build expertise in using it effectively that can then be sold as a service overseas.

Some drivers might need to change jobs, but this could create many opportunities for software / systems / hardware engineers.

Grumpy293, yes they want to cut back costs, they are a company not a charity. I am not sure how you come to the conclusion that they are ripping off Australia because they hope to eliminate some redundant postions using technology. They certainly arent ripping off the many Australians who own shares in these companies.