Why the robots won’t be taking your underground mining job anytime soon

There has been a lot written about the impending automation of the Australian Hardrock mining industry. These reports have caused many people to dismiss the idea of a new career in mining. “What’s the point if you are going to get replaced in a few years” is the attitude of most. It has become an endless stream of articles on how automation is going to replace miners in 5 years or less. I just wanted to explain why the majority of the miners in Australia aren’t going to be replace anytime soon. Its due to the strict rules regarding the use of remote controlled equipment on Western Australian mine sites (as Western Australia goes, so does the rest of the country in Hardrock underground mining).

Western Australia Mines Safety and Inspection Regulations 1995
10.45. Remote controlled equipment
If any equipment (including any diesel or electrically powered unit) is to be operated on remote control in an underground mine, each responsible person at the mine must ensure that
— (a) a written procedure is developed and followed that provides a standard system of operating equipment in the remote control mode that minimizes the risk of injury to the operator and other persons;

I have included the regulation that I believe gets to the point as why hardrock underground mining isn’t going to be automated any time soon. It’s the “standard system of operating” that’s important. We currently have some of the safest Hardrock underground mines in the world, because of these “standard system of work” we use as an industry.

The standard that is currently being used means, all automated and remote controlled equipment have to be operated in an exclusion zone. Before anyone can enter the area, all automated and remote controlled equipment has to be stopped and shut down. The person entering the area must have the permission of the remote operator before entering, to make sure the machine has stopped and is off. This means in mines that have pit ramps or an underground decline, that are required to be used by all the mines vehicles, to access the different work areas, remote controlled trucks quickly become unworkable. These remote trucks are only workable in strip mines and sand oil mines where there is lots of room to have two access roads, one for the remote trucks (the exclusion zone), the other for people, like Rio are doing in the north of WA.

If all the traffic has to use the same road way, then every time a LV (ute) with a person in it uses that ramp or decline, the automated trucks would have to stop. It just makes the mine unworkable, because the number of people required to do different jobs, at different times, in the work areas, can’t be changed, if you are going to keep a large mine working. The survey department, geo’s, production engineer, nipper, shift boss, foreman, charge up, service crew, underground manager, sparky’s and fitters are all required in the working areas. Each shift they work, to keep the mine producing and on schedule. You just wouldn’t get enough ore out to meet production targets, no matter how many trucks you try to run. Not if they have to stop every time someone enters the exclusion zone.

To make this happen, like everyone is talking about will require the written permission from a mines inspector. When I talk to my peers about this, everyone is in agreement. We can’t see the mines department changing a law that has made the work place so much safer anytime soon. So how did we arrive at this standard?

Sadly, a number of people were killed operating remote control equipment from the late 80’s till the late 90’s before tele remotes were introduced. One of the early (world first) actions of the state mines inspectors was to make an exclusion zone for remote equipment. This quickly became the standard and lead to laser barriers, that when broken, acted as a kill switch to the machine. Part of the safety test at the start of shift was/still is to test the barrier, to make sure the equipment stops. As well as the laser barrier in underground mines it has become standard practices to install a physical barrier at the entrance to the level on which remote controlled equipment is being used. Either 3-5 buckets of rocks or a purpose made concrete barrier that service crew put in place with the forks on an IT (integrated tool carrier).

Over the last 20years as both a crew safety rep and a working shift boss I have had the pleasure of meeting my fair share of mines inspectors. One thing that I learnt is, a Mining Inspector will only tell you, what they don’t like and that it needs to be fixed. They will never ever tell you how you should fix the problem, only that it needs to be fixed. I asked why years ago and got told that the reason an inspector won’t tell you how to fix the problem is, it makes them responsible if anything goes wrong. This is why I can’t see an inspector feeling safe/confidant enough to put their name on an automation plan that sees LV’s with people in them operating around remote controlled trucks. It’s going to be very hard to change the standards.

I hope that makes sense. Like I have said before, I believe the real story is the large number of well payed jobs that lots people aren’t applying for because they believe the job won’t be there in 5 years time. When the reality is, a person starting in the industry today will be able to see out their working career easily, making good money the whole time . If this sounds like something you want to do then check out my “Workready” package to get a start in the industry.

Until next time, I hope you get the job you want.


The Mining Coach