'Robot Trucks' To Drive The Mining Boom


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.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.