Chile's Codelco presses ahead with automation plans to bolster copper production

SANTIAGO, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Chile’s state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, will press ahead with plans to roll out automation of its mining operations as it seeks to maintain production levels into the future amid declining ore grades and the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, its chief executive said on Friday.

The progress of Codelco’s digitalization agenda has strained relations with the unions because of the potential for technological advances reducing the need for manual labour.

Technological development is however critical to ensuring the longer-term viability of mining, Codelco CEO Octavio Araneda said in a seminar hosted in the capital Santiago.

Copper miners are struggling globally with the ongoing disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, while in Chile they are also facing a combination of declining ore grades and costly overhauls of ageing mines.

“We are committed to a programme of introducing autonomous trucks in the pits. That’s a potent and challenging goal in terms of automation,” he said.

“That’s the big step still remaining to take, our are plants are already pretty automated.”

Codelco, which delivers all its profits to the state, increased production by 4.7% in the first half of the year even as it reduced staffing and adjusted shift systems to slow the spread of the virus in its operations.

But as Chile reached its peak of infections in July and the virus spread to its northern desert cities, Codelco’s unions reported around 3,000 cases and a handful of deaths, it was forced to stall development projects and smelters.

Araneda celebrated Codelco’s managing to reduce levels of the coronavirus among workers to an average of seven daily cases per day in a mass of 70,000 people, more than half of whom are asymptomatic.

Araneda said the company was prepared for a second wave.

“It is very likely that increases in the number of infections will happen in the country and the regions where we operate,” he said.

Chile this week surpassed 400,000 infections and more than 11,000 deaths from COVID-19 though with a drop in daily infection and positivity rates, it has begun a cautious lifting of lockdowns and resumption of business activity in the capital and around the country. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero, writing by Aislinn Laing Editing by Marguerita Choy)