Even in our digital age, some jobs remain almost as dirty and dangerous as ever. Mining is a prime example — with miners facing risks ranging from fire to falling rock and entrapment — but this industry is beginning to change.
From robotic drills to self-driving ore trucks, automation is bringing a new measure of safety to mines — and boosting the efficiency with which we obtain the precious minerals used to make the trappings of the modern world, from cars and buildings to our electronic devices.
Ultimately, we may see “fully automated ‘man-less’ mines that are completely operated by machines,” Dr. Bernhard Jung, a professor of computer science at Freiberg University of Mining and Technology in Germany, told NBC News MACH in an email. Automation means mines of the future could exist on the ocean floor and even in space. “Making use of robots may be our only chance to ever extract minerals in such areas,” Jung says.
And just as aerial drones can be flown by pilots thousands of miles away, automated mining operations can be supervised from a distance. “You can operate these robots remotely from halfway across the world,” says Dr. Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. For example, he said, “That will allow people in the Midwest to work and operate mining equipment in Australia.”
Self-driving ore carriers
Mining automation is already appearing in the form of self-driving ore-carrying vehicles. These monstrous trucks, which use the same suite of technologies seen in other autonomous vehicles, stay on the job virtually 24/7 — with no need for driver breaks or shift changes.