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Miners look to a future of automated operations

Autonomous haulage trucks like these are being tested at Rio Tinto's West Angelas mine site in Australia.

Christian Sprogoe Photography/Christian Sprogoe Photography

Most mines are already desolate, vast landscapes filled with the hum of haul trucks and only a few humans.

But in years to come they will be even more deserted, as more companies find ways to run their operations from control centres thousands of kilometres away.

The industry's ongoing efforts to increase automation are expected eventually to improve safety, increase production and lower maintenance costs. Remote operations could also ease labour shortages by moving hard-to-fill jobs in the middle of nowhere to more desirable urban centres.

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So far the technology is only being tested by a few big-name mining companies, and it's too soon to tell just how much money it will save, particularly when expenditures are a closely guarded secret. Still, miners are confident a move toward automation, which is happening across all industries to improve efficiency and costs, will have the same impact on mining.

Companies such as Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto PLC , considered the industry leader in remote mining technology, are racing to be first with a fully automated mine.

One major hurdle is fine-tuning the creation of robots or remote vehicles capable of precise, repetitive tasks. Another is cost.

Rio refuses to disclose how much it has earmarked to advance its "Mine of the Future" automation program, citing confidentiality for competitive reasons, but said the investment has been made possible by rising commodity prices over the past several years. The goal is to save money down the road.

"With the improved fortunes of the mining company we thought it was time to see if we could take advantage of our position of actually reinvesting in technology to improve our mining operations and give us an edge in the marketplace," Andrew Stokes, global surface mining leader in Rio's technology and innovation department in Australia, said in a recent interview.

Analysts who have visited Rio's robotic site, called A Pit, at the West Angelas iron ore mine in Australia's Pilbara region describe the technology as impressive. However, it won't likely lead to a revolutionary change in mining costs any time soon, they say, given the high price of making it a commercial reality.

Although other industries already rely on automation, such as auto manufacturing and oil production, mines are more expensive to convert because they are located in remote regions and spread over vast stretches of land.

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Still, companies such as Rio are pressing ahead with pilot programs. Rio's aim is to build an operation "where people are geographically agnostic," Mr. Stokes said.

Employees will work like air traffic controllers, according to Rio, supervising automated production, including the direction of drills, loaders and driverless haul trucks, from a remote operations centre.

The company said its projects, such as Resolution Copper in Arizona and the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project in Mongolia, will rely on automation for underground block cave mining. Rio's technology team is working to improve the speed and safety of building underground infrastructure such as tunnels and shafts.

Other companies also examining remote mining technology include Rio's larger rival, BHP Billiton Ltd., which is testing autonomous Caterpillar haul trucks at its operations in Navajo, N.M.

BHP is also testing a remote operations centre in the Western Australian city of Perth that it hopes to open by the end of next year. Its staff will be able to co-ordinate the near-term scheduling, planning and control for its Pilbara-based iron ore operations, although the site won't immediately include autonomous plant equipment such as driverless trucks.

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About the Author

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More

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