December 02, 2012
Robotic Trucks For Australian Surface Mines
While robotic cars on highways still lie some years in the future robotic trucks in surface mines are happening right now.
BHP Billiton has followed Rio Tinto's lead in using automated and remote technology at West Australian iron ore mines, revealing it plans to run a fleet of robot trucks at its newest mine in the Pilbara region, co-ordinated from a recently established remote-operations centre in Perth.
Rio Tinto is also going to implement robotic trains.
These robotic trucks weigh as much as an Airbus A380 fully fueled. So they are giants. Since these trucks run continuously the labor expenses saved per truck per year is $1 million Australian dollars.
Komatsu and Caterpillar are competing to develop better robotic vehicles. Imagine the point where Caterpillar bulldozers, shovels, and other heavy equipment is totally automated. Picture construction sites where buildings go up without human labor and roads and parking lots get paved with only guards present to keep other people away from the working machines. Then throw in robotic factories for building the trucks and bulldozers. Blue collar jobs do not have a bright future.
Rio Tinto thinks totally robotic mining operations are still some years away. But they are clearly headed in that direction.
Randall Parker, 2012 December 02 07:40 PM
I think that the use of robots by the likes of Rio and BHP could turn out to be a false economy. The high wages paid to large numbers of employees are part of the "social take" of the mining operation. When the Australian Federal treasurer tried to impose a windfall "super profits" tax on mining in Australia a couple of years ago there was a large constituency in Australia that pushed back against this and the tax was drastically reduced in scope. Having large numbers of highly paid employees links the local populations to the sucess of the mining operations. They see attacks on the mining companies as directly impacting them.
My prediction - the wage bill saved through automation will be given up and some to the state in the form of increased royalties and taxes. Getting the necessary environmental permits to commission new mines will also become that much harder when you can't offer high paying jobs to the locals in exchange for the environmental damage.
Robot cars are already on the road. Robot cars are legal in Nevada, California, and Florida.
Makes sense that as employment from mines goes down so will popular support. Though governments will retain more enthusiasm since they'll still see mines as big providers of tax revenue.
Of course, the mines could find ways to bribe the populace. One idea: process the ores locally. Set up smelters and manufacturing plants near the mines. Granted they'll use lots of robots too. But the buildings will still need guards and maintenance personnel as well as some office and shipping and receiving workers. Also, the robot factories beat having the same stuff made in China instead.
Yes, on the road with engineers who are developing the tech for the cars. But people aren't using robot cars for normal life yet. That's still years away.
The real revolutionary development will be to write an object-oriented computer program that will make a self-sustaining robot ecology possible: a closed cycle system where robots are also used to make, repair and maintain robots. Currently, using robots creates considerable employment in making and maintaining these robots. This closed cycle ecology might take another 50-100 years to realize, but once it is done, it will be like Skynet ruling the world.
We won't do a lot of manufacturing of raw materials here in Australia because of Australia's high capital costs. Basically it's cheaper to build robot factories in a lot of other countries, including China. One might think that something basic like steel making would make sense to do in Australia, but for various reasons, including national defence, a lot of nations have invested in steel smelters and the world is over smeltered at the moment, so no one is going to bo back to steel smelting in Australia. And peak steel might not be that far off, particularly since car makers may be switching over to aluminium car bodies. (Note that peak steel is when demand for steel stops growing, not when we've run out of iron, 'cause we got a lot of that. But at some point China, India, Nigeria, etc. will reduce their steel demand just as other countries did as they developed.) In the future robotics and 3D printing may cause manufacturing to become more closely located to demand, but we'll have to wait and see how that plays out. Exisiting manufacturers will try to use new technology to maintain their market position and they may have some success at that.