William Pratt Rogers, an assistant professor in mining engineering at the University of Utah, has no doubt that automation will continue to reshape the mining industry, but not necessarily in the ways everyone expects.
In your thesis you talk about levels of autonomation from 1 to 10. Can you explain what this means?
The key point we are trying to make is that automation isn’t binary – it exists on a spectrum. This is critical because a lot of large companies are making decisions and executing automation strategies based on false pretences. When it comes to automation there is room for incremental change as well as whole system changes. Mining companies around the world, from small to medium and large sites, are all adapting to an increased pace of technological change. Each of those mining classes needs to execute an automation strategy that matches their capital constraints and system demands. A better understanding of the levels of automation will enable them to execute a technology and digital strategy more successfully.
How will automation affect mining?
Automation offers the opportunity to rethink the importance of economies of scale – in other words, larger means more. Up until now, in some areas, economy of scale has meant that precise mining engineering is underrated. However, with automated systems we’ll need far more precise designs and engineering of variables, and this may also lead to more predictable mineral economics. I am curious to see how automation will affect equipment size. I have heard some technologists claim that future automated machines will be smaller sized, but fleets will be larger.
What are the biggest misconceptions about autonomous mining?
The “all-or-nothing” binary thinking, where either a mine is fully automated or it’s not. Mining companies use automation frequently and will continue to adopt automation incrementally. There are also misconceptions about what it means for jobs. Automation will cause disruption and a shift in mining employment – that is certain – but not to the extent expected by many. You cannot have intelligent computation without intelligent human input, so the next step is creating a new generation of mining technology specialists. We will need to retrain existing personnel and attract top talent to mining engineering programs as well as a diverse set of people from computer sciences and systems engineering to our industry.
So automation will not lead to the removal of humans from mining?
I think the future of total automation of mining is very far away. For the most part, mining sites will have a mixture of human-operated and automated machines. All too often I hear executives say, “We need to automate to reduce our dependency on humans.” This is a bad mentality to have as it creates a premise that we can automate away from hu-mans. I don’t believe we can.
How will autonomous technology make underground mining safer?
Whenever we remove humans from zones of high kinetic or potential energy, the outcome is always better. Much of the improvement in mine safety and health can be attributed to this. Long-term health concerns tied to underground emissions and particulates will be eased by reducing the number of hours humans need to be underground. In future, as we continue to mine deeper, mines will become warmer and more difficult to ventilate. The proposed Resolution Cop-per project in Arizona, USA, is one example. It’s deep and extremely hot, and automation will be crucial to its success. I can’t imagine working in a mine that hot, so I hope the technology will be ready for making the mine fully automated.