Wednesday, September 3, 2014

(Digital) Robotic mining - the future happened yesterday

In the second and last summer special blogs this year I want to follow up the digital the agriculture blog here.

If you think the Google's autonomous cars are cute and futuristic then I think your missing something. If you think my blog on Google being interested in mining might be a little far fetched then you are just a little behind what is happening.

While it is easy to imagine the impact of digital technologies on agriculture, the words robotics, autonomous vehicles, digital mining still seems Asimovian. But and this is a huge BUT in fact it is not in the distant future or even in the near future, it is in the past.

In 2008 Rio Tinto introduced driverless heavy haulage trucks - we are talking 300 tonne dump trucks into its Pilbara mines in Australia.

Multinational Rio Tinto pre-empted the move, teaming up with Japanese giant Komatsu to start trialling driverless trucks on its Pilbara mine sites in 2008. It now has 30 autonomous trucks across two of its Pilbara mine sites, with ambitious plans to roll out 150. Fortescue Metals Group was the next cab off the rank, signing up with Caterpillar in 2011. It now has a fleet of 12 trucks on its Solomon Mine sites. BHPBilliton is beginning its trials now. ABC 2014-04-25.
The vehicles are autonomous but are watched over from remote operations centres. This example breaks three myths. First, that mining is old school - here three Australia related tech giants are at the leading edge of autonomous vehicles and robotics. Second, the related industries of heavy industry are old school - who has heard of Komatsu and Caterpillar as leading autonomous vehicle developers. Third, note the first company was Komatsu. It is too easy to write off Japanese tech capability because Sony and Toshiba have fallen behind. That is too simple a story.

Globally speaking mining is a massive industry in itself but due to its capital intensity it is a major source of demand for technologies from across the economy. What this example shows is that mining rather than a laggard, can be a lead purchaser / driver of technology. Chris DeBresson and Von Hippel - right again.

The focus on consumer technologies is catchy news but sometimes distracts out attention from where change is already happening.

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