Mining companies are betting on autonomous technology to make dangerous jobs safer

Saskatoon-based Nutrien Ltd. developed tele-remote technology that allowed it to conduct mines at its underground site in Lanigan without requiring operators to be in a hazardous location.
(Photo credit: Nutrien Ltd.)

CALGARY – Forget the canary in the coal mine – experts say the day will come when not even a human will be needed.

The global mining industry has come a long way from the days when blackened miners carried a bird underground in the hope that its distress would alert them to the presence of toxic gases.

Today, companies are using everything from self-driving trucks to remote-controlled and robotic drilling machines to take human labor out of some of their most dangerous operations.

Saskatoon-based Nutrien Ltd. – which has been developing tele-remote technology at its network of six potash mines in Saskatchewan – successfully mined an entire production wing at its underground site in Lanigan last fall without a single human setting foot in the area .

Using a combination of radar, cameras, advanced detection systems and advanced technologies powered by artificial intelligence, Nutrien was able to operate one of its massive potash drilling machines from a control room several hundred feet away from the active mine face.

“It was just a huge success for us,” said Shannon Rhynold, Nutrien’s vice president of potash engineering, technology and capital. “Traditionally, in potash mining you have these huge 250-tonne devices. There was always an operator in the cab, operating the joysticks, looking out for various geological markers. And one of the big challenges was ‘how do you remove them from that machine?’

The achievement – the result of several years of intensive engineering work and experimentation – was a first for the company, with the goal of making potash mining safer by removing workers from the most dangerous underground locations.

“Let’s face it, if you have a 250-ton machine cutting into stone, there’s noise, there’s dust, there’s heat, there’s vibration,” Rhynold said. “And because you’re opening up that new terrain, you’re always at risk of what’s in the ground above you, what’s on the walls to the side of you.”

Mining has always been a dangerous business. The risks are greatest in underground operations, where workers face everything from collapses and fires to flooding and toxic air.

But open-pit mines also entail potential dangers, such as collisions and the overturning of heavy equipment. Statistics from the Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada show that there were 51 workplace fatalities in mining, quarrying and oil and gas exploration in this country alone in 2021.

Therefore, security has been one of the key drivers behind an ongoing, mass transition to automation in the industry, thanks to recent advances in AI, digital and remote technology.

At the Boddington gold mine in Western Australia, human drivers have been replaced by a fully autonomous fleet of 36 trucks. In Chile, mining giant BHP is installing autonomous drilling machines at its Spence copper mine. Chinese telecom company Huawei has installed 5G technology to replace underground miners with machines operated from the surface.

Here in Canada, Teck Resources Ltd. already an autonomous transportation system at its Elkview coal mine in British Columbia.

“Automation is changing where a mine is actually monitored — it doesn’t have to be at the mine site,” said W. Scott Dunbar, chief of the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia.

Productivity is one of the reasons mining companies are turning to automation. For example, a remote controlled mining machine does not need to take breaks and does not need to pause for shift changes.

At an investor presentation earlier this year, Brad Corson, CEO of Imperial Oil, said the fleet of autonomously piloted Caterpillar heavy-lift trucks at the Kearl Oilsands mine in northern Alberta is showing 10 to 15 percent higher productivity than manned trucks.

“(An autonomous truck) can reverse much, much faster than a manned truck could. And they can also pass each other much closer than you would ever allow with manned trucks,” said Corson. “So it really enables much faster loading.”

The rapid pace of automation is changing the types of jobs available at mining sites, making software skills more valuable than the ability to drive a truck in some companies.

The language in the current collective agreement between Teck Coal Ltd. and United Steelworkers Local 7884 — which contains an entire section on “technological change” and outlines employer obligations in the event that “mechanization or automation of tasks” leads to job losses — illustrates the nervousness some workers may feel about the prospect of remote controlled equipment and self-driving trucks.

But Nutrien says its tele-remote mining program hasn’t eliminated jobs at all — it’s simply moved equipment operators from a hazardous physical location to a secure control room.

Imperial also says the former truck drivers have not lost their jobs, but have been transferred to other parts of the organization or retrained to operate other equipment.

In fact, Rhynold said he believes remote and autonomous technology has the potential to make mining a more inclusive industry that appeals to women, older workers, the physically challenged and more.

“If you can work in an air-conditioned room, and here’s the bathroom and here’s the coffee maker and here’s your nice ergonomic chair. . . I think that opens it up to a lot more diversity,” he said.

“It makes mining potentially interesting to a wider range of people.”

Mark Crouse, industry account manager for mining at software giant SAP, said he has been hearing mining customers talk about the potential of remote and autonomous technology for more than 20 years.

While the industry has only recently begun to move faster in this direction, Crouse, he believes, will come a day when no one will have to go underground to mine the Earth’s resources.

“Remember when people used flip phones not too long ago and how quickly things changed? It’s not that far off,” Crouse said. “The possibilities are already there. The technology already exists.”

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