* Miners look to spend record profits going hi-tech
* Safety concerns also driver in spurring automation
* Union cautiously supports automation efforts
By Rebekah Kebede
PERTH, June 22 Some Australian mine workers may
soon find themselves trading in their steel-toed boots for a
headset and computer mouse, as mining companies automate to help
plug labour shortages and ramp up output to feed Asia's
voracious demand for minerals.
Jobs in Australia's Outback mines can mean grueling 12-hour
days, scorching temperatures and long commutes -- conditions
perfect for machines from driverless trucks to drilling robots.
The resources industry has roughly $400 billion in new
projects on the drawing board in Australia and, along with the
construction industry, will need an additional 260,000 workers
over the next five years, according to government estimates.
"There's a shortage of skilled and un-skilled workers and
that tends to lead to automation, certainly companies will be
looking at that more at the current time," said Colin Hamilton,
a commodities analyst with Macquarie in London.
The use of remote-controlled mining could even replace one
of the stock characters of Australia's mining bonanza -- the
truck driver without a degree who can rake in more than $100,000
Rio Tinto recently announced plans to double its
fleet of driverless mining trucks at its Yandicoogina mine, the
largest in Australia's Pilbara outback iron ore district.
A guidance system, in a box near the front bumper, and a
couple of radar-dish sensors remotely steer the trucks, which
are otherwise identical to the towering yellow-painted behemoths
that lumber through Pilbara's red-rust landscape.
"They will be doing everything. The whole (mining) pit will
be fully autonomous -- nothing that goes in or out of there
that's not on a computer screen," Gervase Greene, spokesman for
Rio Tinto, said.
"It works from an efficiency point of view fantastically.
You'll find load time is quicker, they are always in position,
exactly the same position."
Rio Tinto already runs many of its mines from a centre in
Perth, some 1,500 km away from the Pilbara.
At the operating centre, which resembles a NASA control room
and is far removed from the dusty outback, employees sit in
front of desks with multiple screens detailing mine operations.
From the serene atmosphere of the control room, Rio
employees guide machines that do most of the work at the mines
-- from loading trains and ships to controlling mine power and
water supply, Greene said.
Rio had even begun investing in driverless trains, but
suspended the program as it tried to cut back on costs when the
global financial crisis hit.
Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd, owned by Australia's richest
person, Gina Rinehart, will soon follow suit with remote
operating centers in Perth for its Roy Hill iron ore mine and in
Brisbane for coal mining.
"There are a whole bunch of reasons for doing it -- to
reduce costs, improve safety, and improve quality, increase
capacity, improve productivity, reduce waste. Down the list, I
think, it is to replace people," said Jock Cunningham, an
automation expert at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Rapidly growing Asian economies such as China and India have
kept Australia's miners producing at breakneck speed, 24 hours a
day, seven days a week.
With production set to pick up and major miners planning to
pour money into expanding operations, having robots do the job
speeds operations up.
"Machines tend not to get tired -- they will just keep doing
the same thing over and over again... plus they are able to work
through shift breaks and reduce travel time," Cunningham said.
Companies typically need to see a 10 to 20 percent annual
saving or improved productivity to encourage investment in
high-cost robots, he said.
Off-the-shelf technology can take about a year to pay off,
while companies developing bespoke technology can wait up to ten
years to break even, he said.
Some of the machines -- such as the popular Load, Haul, Dump
or LHD vehicle -- can be sent into mine shafts for long periods
of time, saving humans from deep descents which can put them in
From a mining company's point of view, cutting the number of
accidents can be advantageous as well.
"...that's a huge cost, it's a huge cost to a company's
reputation and a risk as far as we're concerned," said Cheryl
Edwardes, head of government relations for Hancock Prospecting.
RESPONDING TO UNION PRESSURE?
Automation has gained cautious union support for its
potential to improve safety.
"There are some benefits to automating some of the work
that's been traditionally quite dangerous -- we've still got an
unacceptable number of deaths in the mining industry," Unions
Western Australia Secretary Simone McGurk said.
Although miners emphasize that they do not intend to
substitute robots for people, some say union pressure could be
one of the factors driving automation.
Western Australia's Pilbara is not unionized, but unionized
coal miners in the eastern Queensland state are in a dispute
with BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi.
"Given the current situation of the growing standoff between
mining unions and some of the nations big miners, there's
somewhat of a longer term incentive to potentially reduce
employee numbers," said Gavin Wendt, senior resources analyst at
Using robots to do some of the more backbreaking jobs is
another potential advantage.
"What we do is we take the people out of those jobs in the
pit and put them somewhere where they are doing better stuff.
They are not getting replaced by (driverless) trucks by no means
-- not one person," Rio Tinto's Greene said.
Still, CSIRO's Cunningham says some mining jobs will likely
become extinct, just as the computer phased out the typing pool.
"The new breed of operators that are coming through - the
Gen Y operators - are very savvy to virtual interfaces and
remote control," Cunningham said.
"They like this stuff and that's what they expect to find in
the industry rather than working behind a steering wheel or gear
shift... a mining company that has that higher level will
probably be more attractive to young employees."
(Editing by Ed Davies and Himani Sarkar)