* New, automated mining equipment cuts costs, boosts safety
* Companies eye driverless vehicles, new digging methods
* Automation essential as miners dig deeper, in remote areas
* Unions make peace with automation: 'good for productivity'
By Julie Gordon
SUDBURY, Ontario, Oct 28 In an office trailer
parked outside a mine shaft in northern Ontario, operator
Carolyn St-Jean leans back in her chair and monitors a machine
loading nickel-rich ore into rail cars deep underground.
Once filled, the automated train will snake through a series
of narrow tunnels, emerge from a rocky outcropping, then loop
past St-Jean's window and dump its payload for sorting.
Vale SA, the Brazilian company that owns the mine
near this nickel-rich Canadian town, has spent nearly $50
million in two years to install and test the "rail-veyor." The
company believes the transport system will revolutionize how it
builds and extracts new mineral deposits.
The equipment is made locally by Rail-Veyor Technologies
Global Inc. It is one of many mining technologies that
developers hope will allow future production to be run almost
entirely by people safely above ground.
Such advances may prove crucial as easy-to-exploit deposits
run dry and miners drill deeper in more remote places to supply
China, India and other emerging economies. The technology could
make mining cheaper and safer, avoiding the need to dig wide
tunnels and hire large numbers of expensive, skilled workers.
"As we go deeper, if we continue to apply existing thinking
and existing technologies, it's a death spiral" for company
profits, said Alex Henderson, who heads Vale's technology team
"We need to begin to look at a step-change in mining rather
than just incrementally improving our existing processes."
The rail-veyor is one such step-change. At the test site, it
has halved the time to build a mine, and Vale expects a 150
percent boost in production rates before year end.
In Australia, Rio Tinto Ltd, one of the world's
largest miners and an automation pioneer, is rolling out a fleet
of self-driving trucks and trains at its iron ore operations.
Vale, BHP Billiton and Chile's Codelco are in hot
Gold miner AngloGold Ashanti is eyeing automation
in South Africa, where miners spend hours each shift traveling
up and down shafts and ounces of gold are left behind in support
pillars each year.
Organized labor has made its peace with the automation
drive, although there were some concerns that robots would
"We're ok with automation, it's part of the changing times
and it's a good thing for productivity," said Myles Sullivan of
the United Steelworkers Canada, whose workers ended a year-long
strike at Vale over bonuses and wages in 2010.
700 STORIES UNDERGROUND
New challenges in mining are driving technological changes.
Large, accessible deposits have all but disappeared. Resources
of tomorrow are in far-flung corners of the globe or hundreds of
meters beneath the surface.
Add a shortage of skilled labor - expected to worsen as the
baby-boom generation retires - and mining costs have surged.
While soaring demand means higher metal prices, rising costs
are crimping profits. Canada's S&P/TSX Mining share index has
fallen more than 38 percent since the beginning of 2011.
Experts say mining companies must change how they operate.
Making that shift is not easy for an industry steeped in
tradition, especially when change doesn't come cheap. Rio Tinto
is spending more than $500 million on train automation alone.
"This is a very conservative industry that has been very
productive over the last 30 years doing it the way they're doing
it now," said Douglas Morrison, chief executive of the Centre
for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), an industry-funded
research center in Sudbury.
"But is the old way going to work for us into the future? I
think probably not, so we need to make some changes."
After decades of production, the nickel mines around Sudbury
are getting deeper and deeper. At Vale's Creighton mine, the No.
8 shaft drops nearly 8,000 feet into the ground - equivalent of
a 700-story condo tower.
At that depth it is very hot, around 50 degrees Celsius (120
Fahrenheit), so tunnels must be pumped full of cooled air to
make temperatures manageable for people and heavy machinery.
"The bigger issue is when we get much deeper we start to
generate our own earthquakes - very small earthquakes - these
are called 'rock bursts,'" said Morrison.
Smaller tunnels and new ways of digging can hopefully reduce
the danger of these rock bursts, which create a safety concern
and slow development.
Rio Tinto is working with CEMI on automated tunnel borers,
currently used to build subway and sewer tunnels. By cutting
through the rock instead of blasting, Rio aims to quadruple its
underground advance rates to 20 meters a day.
But while automated tunnel borers will build shafts and
tunnels more quickly, massive mining equipment still handicaps
the industry, which is where Vale's rail-veyor comes in.
A train hauling 50 tonnes of ore uses a far smaller tunnel
than a truck with the same load. By taking the massive trucks
and scooptrams - l a rge vehicles with shovels on the front - out
of the equation, Vale can build more compact and stable tunnels.
The rail-veyor, built on tracks that zig-zag down to the
deposit, actually eliminates the need for expensive shafts and
may eventually move people and equipment, along with ore.
Vale's Henderson believes the technology - which the company
plans to roll out in five upcoming projects - is a game-changer
that will help usher in a new era of mining.
"Just as the scooptram was the key enabler for the
mechanized era, is the rail-veyor a key enabler for the next?"
MAN VS MACHINE
What that "next era" will look like is still up for debate.
Some innovators believe robots will do most of the labor in
mines of the future, as in automobile assembly plants. This
would ease likely shortages in skilled labor in many countries.
Over the next decade Canada's mining sector will need more
than 100,000 skilled new hires to sustain even modest growth,
according to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council.
In Australia, the labor crunch is already so intense that
truck drivers can make upwards of $100,000 a year, with turnover
rates at some mines still near 40 percent.
"One of the biggest problems that the mining industry faces
worldwide is trained personnel. We can't get them," said John
Meech, director of CERM3, a mining research center at the
University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
"One of the ways we are going to have to deal with that is
to automate the systems so that the human becomes the
supervisor, rather than the direct means of control."
It is a concept already used at remote open-pit mines in
Australia, where Rio's new fleet of driverless trucks can be run
from a control room hundreds of miles away.
Canada's Nautilus Minerals Inc is using automated
rovers to explore the ocean bed for mineral deposits that
underwater robots will eventually mine.
In addition to boosting productivity, the advances will
enhance safety. As labor leader Sullivan says, "so long as
there's underground mining, there will be women and men working
Safety is the focus at a converted schoolyard just outside
Sudbury, where a duo of mine rescue robots roll through a
makeshift obstacle course. Their thick tires grind over logs and
through mud pits.
Designed by Canada's Penguin Automated Systems Inc, the
equipment is being tested by Codelco at its Andina copper mine
in Chile, doing dangerous jobs like checking stability after
blasting and surveying tunnels at risk of flooding.
"Our mining industry is not quite there yet in Canada and it
needs to get there to be competitive with the rest of the
world," said Penguin Chief Executive Greg Baiden. "It comes back
to the culture. Who wants to do it? Who wants to be first?"