Western Australia’s miners turn to robotics to accelerate automation

Australian miners who are leading the use of heavy haulage automation are increasingly connecting their assets to digital capabilities and robotics, though it is not without risks.

Published on S&PGlobal.com on 30 July, 2023

Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., BHP Group Ltd. and Rio Tinto Group, which help make Australia the world’s biggest iron ore producer, are automating their operations Down Under, and other miners that contribute to the country’s status as the top lithium producer are following suit.

The country was home to 975 of the nearly 1,600 autonomous haul trucks operating in surface mines across the globe in May, according to GlobalData. As of last year, these trucks were deployed in 25 Australian mines, compared with just 19 mines across the rest of the world, the data analytics consultancy said.

“Automation and robotics are accelerating in Western Australia’s mining sector, [which] is perfect for industrial field robots and heavy vehicles,” Tamryn Barker, head of the Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct (AARP), told S&P Global Commodity Insights.

AARP is a hub for testing and developing autonomous, remote operations, and robotic systems and equipment. It was started in 2021 by the government of Western Australia.

Fortescue Future Industries Pty. Ltd. has been an early user of AARP in testing automation on renewable energy technologies.

Tapping into smarter data

Miners are looking to digitize more assets to boost safety, uptime and profitability as well as optimize production, Andrew Johnstone, industrial internet of things product specialist at Cisco Systems Inc., told Commodity Insights.

“Assets — which could be the truck itself, or the battery inside the truck — are getting smarter, with a greater ability to report on their performance. This data has to go somewhere else to get turned into insights,” Johnstone said.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence can turn data into actionable insights, such as correcting and amending an asset’s activity, allowing autonomous technology and robotics to operate without direct supervision.

“Digitizing is really where it’s at — that really is the lifeblood that provides the visibility to get the agility” for miners’ assets, Johnstone said.

Sending in the robots

Robotics and automation are accelerating in Western Australia because miners value safety and are looking to overcome high labor costs, Solar Energy Robotics CEO Ben Brayford told Commodity Insights.

Solar Energy Robotics’ autonomous robots have been operating in the Pilbara for five years, including at BHP’s Jimblebar iron ore mine site, where their robots clean solar panels that power the communication towers; these in turn keep the autonomous fleet operating.

The Perth-based startup plans to test and validate its robots at the small solar hub that will be installed to power AARP.

Solar power is often the lowest-cost solution for miners’ off-grid infrastructure, Brayford said. “With no low-cost resources on site to clean them, BHP was sending highly qualified personnel out to clean their solar arrays every second or third day with a bucket of water and broom.”

“As mine sites are going autonomous, companies can’t even get access to the mine pits where these solar panels are, and actually have to restrict production to get people in there. So [Solar Energy Robotics’ technology] is a no-brainer for them,” the CEO said.

Solar Energy Robotics is gaining more traction with iron ore producers Rio Tinto, Roy Hill Holdings Pty. Ltd. and Fortescue Metals Group, Brayford said.

Old attitudes die hard

Autonomy and the data collected and communicated using various devices pose challenges, Cisco’s Johnstone said. “The more you connect, the more potential avenues for attack you’ve got, for data to be exfiltrated or stolen by somebody, or just lost in the morass.”

That includes every piece of equipment down to cameras and communications gear on the trucks.

“Where does the firmware come from, and can they verify their supply chain to say that nothing has been interfered with at any step of the way during production of that device?” Johnstone said.

“We’ve had incidents in other industries where things have left the factory and they’ve already been compromised. Then somebody puts them in play in their environment and somebody has a back door into that [industry] environment.”

At the same time, some old industry attitudes toward technology are hard to break, said Mathieu Paul, commercial director at visibility platform GeoMoby Pty. Ltd.

GeoMoby, which counts BHP and Fortescue among its clients, said its underground tracking technology allows real-time monitoring of assets and people and can improve rescue and recovery rates should an incident occur.

“The main challenges we are trying to overcome is that mindset that it’s not possible to track underground — that technology is not reliable, not accurate, too expensive. All of that is gone, even when operating in the middle of the desert,” Paul told Commodity Insights.

“We can go very deep down underground and relay information in real time, and that now comes at a fraction of what it used to cost,” Paul said. “There is no excuse for not making sure that every underground mining worker returns safely every single day in 2023.”

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