The world’s first two mines have begun transporting all of their iron ore using remote-controlled trucks. These trucks are being operated at a whopping 1,200 km away from the mining sites.

Rio Tinto is running pits at its Nammuldi and Yandicoogina sites with employees controlling the 69 driverless trucks from an operations facility in Perth.

“To the naked eye it looks like conventional mining methods. I guess the key change for us is the work that employees and our team members are doing now,” said Josh Bennet, manager of mining operations at Yandicoogina mine.

“What we have done is map out our entire mine and put that into a system and the system then works out how to manoeuvre the trucks through the mine.”

Bennet said the two pits are the biggest of their kind worldwide.

“We have a whole dedicated team based in Perth that is looking at how to optimise the system, looking at maintenance, productivity…those are jobs that did not exist five years ago,” said Josh Bennet, manager of mining operations at Yandicoogina mine.

“We have got roles which are being created such as a central controller and a pit controller which are essential to running the autonomous system.”

The trucks eliminate some of the dangers with traditional methods. “We have taken away a very high risk role, where employees are exposed to fatigue,” Bennet said.

The trucks can operate 24/7, all year round without a driver who needs bathroom and meal breaks. The company estimates that each truck will save about 500 work hours per year.

More than that, the company is able to cut operating costs, “It is quite challenging to get repeatability out of a human, one of the advantages we have had with autonomous haulage particularly in the truck fleet we notice we are getting consistency in terms of the way the machines are operating.

“One of the biggest costs we have got is maintaining mobile assets, so we spend a lot of time on our operator training, education. So, there is obvious capital savings, in terms of setting up camps, flying people to site, there is less people so there is less operating costs, but there are some costs that come into running the system and maintenance of the system as well.”

The company plans to have most of its operations remote controlled from the operations center in Perth. Unmanned trains and mining with robot drills are also being trialled. The majority of the company’s supply chain will be operated by remote control. Rio plans to fully automate its trains by middle of next year after the Office of Rail Safety contains the technology in its safety guidelines. With the implementation of new technology comes the creation of new and highly skilled positions.

Automated technology creates new industry standards and unique job opportunities

Rio competitors, Fortescue Metals Group and BHP Billiton are also looking to adopt automated mining. The companies are currently both trialling remote controlled technology at their mining facilities.

With the shift moving away from manual labour, the demand for technology and cost saving practices is higher than ever. Market commentator Giuliano Sala Tenna from Bell Potter Securities said it was a necessity to remain ahead of other global mining producers.

“The benefit of technology is the one to many relationship, so you can just have one individual or one full time equivalent doing the job of many people,” Mr Sala Tenna said.

“What they are really looking at is what is going to be required for the next decade to stay profitable and this is one of the things they need to do in order to stay profitable through the entire cycle.”

Dr Carla Boehl, Senior lecturer at Curtin University’s School of the Mines, points out that the changing industry is creating new and exciting opportunities for students.

“The students themselves are interested, they want to do their thesis in this field and learn more about automation,” she said.

“In terms of trades, there will be fewer jobs, but in terms of maintainers we still need them, we can’t live without them,” she said. “All this technology, bit data and analytics will actually increase the number of jobs in more analytical work, it is a change from trade jobs to more analytical ones.”

Dr Raymond Sheh from Curtin University’s Computing Department has been studying robots for more than a decade and said the innovation must be exploited.

“There are new jobs coming online that support these new technologies,” he said.

“You still need people in there to monitor where they go, to tell them where they should be going and should be doing, even though a lot of that scheduling is being done automatically.”

Although the automated industry is still relatively new and secretive, robotics experts believe it provides big opportunities.