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Forget cars—the driverless-vehicle revolution is happening deep underground

Mining is dirty, dangerous work, so miners and their suppliers are racing to develop automated machinery and software to do the actual digging and hauling. Already there are driverless diggers and loaders, and flying drones that can spot deposits or danger zones deep underground.

But before this new technology can be used in an actual mine, it needs to be thoroughly tested. That's where Sudbury's Northern Centre for Advanced Technology, or NORCAT, comes in—it has a testing facility in a working nickel mine once owned by Falconbridge. One day recently, Hard-Line Solutions, a growing Ontario-based supplier of remote-control and automation systems, was using some of its gear to operate a driverless loader built by France's Aramine.

A decade ago, says Hard-Line's senior vice-president of operations, Ryan Siggelkow, improving safety was the industry's top goal. "Now a lot of the push is productivity and lowering costs," he says.

Automated mines can operate 24 hours a day and be run remotely. Even a lack of oxygen is less of a problem—if deposits are blasted loose, equipment can go back into shafts quickly without waiting the usual hours or days for full ventilation.