Mines without miners?
Not quite. Still, a technology boom in robots, drones, driverless trucks and unmanned trains is beginning to reshape one of the world's most labour-intensive industries, allowing development of mines in regions once thought too dangerous or remote to exploit.
Already about 200 driverless haul trucks are working iron ore mines, mainly in Australia. Meanwhile, mining giant Rio Tinto, which funds one of the world's largest non-military robotics programmes, will soon use unmanned trains to deliver cargo to the coast and set drones aloft at its remote mines.
Drones can monitor stockpiles, map exploration targets and track equipment and will eventually deliver parcels, according to consultancy Accenture - and on a schedule far ahead of that envisioned by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, who one day wants Amazon's books and DVDs delivered to customers via miniature helicopters.
"Come and see me in about October," says John McGagh, head of innovation at Rio Tinto in Brisbane, where staff use the world's largest multi-content touchscreen to monitor mining operations from Utah to Queensland. "You will see drones flying around. That's not so long away."
Technological advances in the development of drones and robots will help create mines of the future in remote locations such as Mongolia that can be directed from control rooms in the US and Australia. BHP Billiton, the world's biggest miner, Anglo American and Rio are all in this automated global high-tech race, betting new equipment will help cut costs and improve returns as well as allowing them to exploit deposits so far considered too complex or too dangerous for humans.
While drones swarm overhead, the mines of 2030 may also see scuttling robots which map underground chambers to within a millimetre of detail with lasers or use automated drills to separate waste from valuable ore as they burrow into rock. At waste dumps, so-called molecular sponges created from crab shells will be used to extract every last metal particle.
"Drones will be able to shorten supply chains, and will change your ability to monitor, track and manage the key aspects of your mining business that are time-critical in remote places," says Nigel Court, Perth-based natural resources industry leader for Asia Pacific at Accenture. "One of the great things we'll see with drones is immediate spare part delivery, literally within hours, where right now it can take days."
Mining companies have the advantage of operating in often remote regions where drones aren't likely to be threats to high-density populations. Amazon's drones will operate in the thick of civilisation, which explains the go-slow approach. The company envisions small helicopter devices called Octocopters delivering packages weighing as much as 2.3kg, its chief executive officer Bezos said in December.
There are no good estimates on what drone and robot technology might save the US$1 trillion mines of the future ...You will see drones flying around. That's not so long away.John McGagh, Rio TintoDriverless trucks (left) are already at work at Rio Tinto's West Angelas mine in Western Australia, and unmanned aerial vehicles (above) are soon expected to be commonplace in the mining industry. PICTURES / BLOOMBERG
($1.16 trillion) global mining industry, though there are hints based on current applications of smart technology. Rio's use of sensors to fine-tune copper processing has seen free cashflow improved by US$80 million over the past year, according to CEO Sam Walsh, who has reduced costs company-wide by US$2.3 billion since he took his post in January 2013.
Australia's mining industry alone spends about A$4 billion ($4.3 billion) a year on research and development, according to the country's Bureau of Statistics. Rio spent US$370 million on its 730-person technology and innovation unit in 2013, according to its annual report.
Yet, only about 0.5 per cent of the world's fleet of about 40,500 mining haul trucks are currently driverless, and in many regions producers are likely to be slow to adopt new technology, says Brenton Saunders, a Sydney-based investment analyst with BT Investment Management, which manages about A$62 billion.
"The big issue is that in countries in South America or in South Africa, the cost of employing five guys to do the same job as your new flashy machinery is still cheaper than your new flashy machinery," Saunders says.
An automated haul truck costs between US$3 million and US$5 million, depending on its size and other specifications, says Pennsylvania-based mining equipment researcher Peter Gilewicz.
Rio Tinto spokesman Bruce Tobin in Melbourne declines to comment on how quickly the company's fleet will recoup the investment. The producer's driverless trucks have already moved 130 million tonnes of material and travelled 2.3 million kilometres, equivalent to more than 57 trips around the equator.
Drones are already operating around the periphery of the mining business, says Ray Gillinder, managing director of HELImetrex, which supplies four unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones are officially known, to mining clients in Australia.
Leighton Holdings' mining unit, which works for producers including Glencore Xstrata, holds a licence to operate UAVs in Australia and deploys them for aerial photography, says the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
"There will be loads and loads in use. We're heading there in the next three years," says Tom Tadrowski, executive director of Adelaide company DroneMetrex, which has flown the machines at OZ Minerals' South Australia copper mine, where they are fitted with deterrents to scare away curious wedge-tailed eagles.
A fully automated mine, which offers the precision achieved in carmaking, is probably only a decade away, according to Rowan Melrose, Brisbane-based president of automation and technology at equipment maker Sandvik's mining unit.
Robot miners, with operators or supervisors based in control rooms a continent away, could change the equation for assets like Rio's Resolution copper project in Arizona, which may become North America's largest, according to Rio's McGagh.
"This thing is 2.5km deep, and it's 85 degrees centigrade down there. You are going to have a lot of machines down there," McGagh says.