Mining services players are stepping up their game when it comes to automation thanks to a rapid push by miners to adopt new ways of getting minerals out of the ground.

Earlier this week National Group revealed it was acquiring Wolff Group so it could expand its services in autonomous operations.

While autonomous trucks — and trains thanks to Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) — are now in use on Western Australian mines, Wolff Group plans to make other mining equipment autonomous.

The company has established partnerships with equipment manufacturers Caterpillar and Hastings Deering to implement and optimise Semi-Autonomous Tractor System (SATS) technology for use in mining equipment.

Check out these SATS bulldozers:

SATS Bulldozers, National Group
SATS Bulldozers. Pic: National Group

The iron ore industry in Western Australia led the way in automation, with 200 driverless trucks now in operation and a further 240 more to come.

“We are rapidly evolving our industry here in Western Australia and by 2025 we expect that many Western Australian mines will be autonomous with decisions being made by machine learning and predictive analysis,” WA Mines Minister Bill Johnston said at the recent Association of Mining Companies (AMEC) Convention in Perth.

And automation is rapidly expanding to other sectors of the mining industry, as well as other countries.

Gold miner Resolute Mining (ASX:RSG), for example, is building the world’s first fully autonomous underground mine in Africa.

Earlier this year, the company started autonomous production drilling at its Syama mine in Mali as part of its ongoing automation program.

The company’s goal is to reach commercial production in the September quarter.

Up until now it has been mostly autonomous drills, driverless trucks and Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul — the world’s first heavy-haul, long-distance autonomous rail operation.


Automation is spreading

But automation is quickly expanding to other areas of mining.

“The level of interest has increased significantly in recent years,” National Group COO Julian Cook told Stockhead.

“Full mine site automation is likely still some time away, however there are key aspects of mining operations suitable for automation.

“We are seeing an increase in specific mining applications generally including dozer operations, drilling and haulage.”

Cook said another key driver in the demand for autonomous technology, which will continue to drive developments in the area, is protecting the safety and wellbeing of people working in traditionally high-risk environments, such as mines.

Israeli automated drone start-up Airobotics, which works with the likes of mining heavyweights BHP (ASX:BHP), Vale and South32 (ASX:S32), has developed a completely autonomous drone system.

The system comprises a large airbase, or docking station, that stands 2.5m tall and weighs 3 tonnes.

The drone takes off from and lands on the docking station, and everything from charging and replacing the batteries and cameras to downloading the data is controlled autonomously.

“The reason why we built it this way, without a human in the loop, is because the number one reason for safety incidents is human error,” vice president of marketing Efrat Fenigson told Stockhead previously.

“So we wanted to automate the whole process from the flight of the drone to the data processing and analytics.”

Airobotics’ drones can be used for surveying and mapping, security and emergency response, stockpile management, haul road optimisation, inspection of infrastructure and to monitor the risks of tailings dams.

The company has drones in operation at several mine sites in Western Australia and at Vale’s nickel mine in New Caledonia.

Automation is not new to the mining industry, but it is no longer just the big miners that can afford the technology.

“Automation is not only accessible to first tier large mining companies anymore,” National Group’s Cook said.

“Improvements in the technology has meant it is now more accessible and affordable than ever before.

“We have seen an interest in autonomous technology and use increasing throughout the mining industry, including junior miners.”


Skills challenge

The challenges miners face in the shift to automation are largely skill related.

Dr Alexandra Heath, head of the economic analysis department for the Reserve Bank of Australia, said at last week’s AMEC Convention that the automation of mine sites will require workers with much different skill sets.

“Unlike a truck driver, a controller must be highly computer literate and be able to solve a different nature of problems to what the truck driver was required to solve,” she said.

“But autonomous trucks also require communications technology that needs to be maintained and this increases the demand for highly skilled communications technicians.

“And if we look slightly deeper into the crystal ball, changes in demand for different types of skills are likely to continue as electric mining equipment and vehicles become more commonplace and robots replace human miners, particularly in more dangerous environments.

“These examples suggest that mining is going to become increasingly reliant on people with IT skills of various kinds.”

This has prompted educators and industry representatives to start trying to address this anticipated skills shortage.

On Wednesday, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan and Education and Training Minister Sue Ellery announced that two new automation courses would now be offered at South Metropolitan TAFE’s Munster campus.

This initiative was led by the Resource Industry Collaboration, which includes miners Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG), BHP, equipment maker Komatsu, and representatives from TAFE WA, Scitech and The University of Western Australia.

Rio chipped in $2m for the new training program.

“These new courses will allow us to maintain our competitive advantage as a leader in automation technology in Australia and ensure local people have the skills for the new jobs that are being created through technological innovation,” McGowan said.

The industry is also working with students at Kent Street High School in Perth’s southern suburbs to mould the next generation of miners.

Kent Street High’s CoRE program encourages students to explore possibilities and combine the sciences, technology, engineering, arts and maths to develop novel solutions to real-world problems.

>> Read: Miners are hitting high schools in Perth to tackle a looming skills shortage – and it’s working

National Group’s Cook said the industry needed to continue to invest in not only technological advancements, but in education and training to ensure appropriate level of skilled personnel were available to develop and operate.

“The industry appears to have recognised the need for additional qualified and trained personnel although this still needs further attention,” he said.

“Organisations like us are investing in our people and technology, however it needs a unified industry approach to ensure a broader adoption and continuous improvement.”