Conveying copper ore at Northparkes Open Day
The search for robots does not always end with finding discrete autonomous actors. The picture is more complex. In March, I travelled 7 hours West to visit the Open Day at Rio Tinto’s copper mine at Northparkes NSW (near Parkes) on March 2 2013. This visit was an opportunity to experience and understand some of the robots and other actors around the robots. These actors smoothed and accelerated the movement of ore from 600m underground to the surface, onto stockpiles, and finally on train to the ports.
Among the robotic actors on this site was the Loader Hauler Dumper (LHD) from Swedish manufacturer Sandvik. This vehicle is a hybrid operated / autonomous / remote operated rock mover. It is a robot that navigates its load from draw points deep underground, and brings it nearer the surface for crushing and refining.
As it turns out, the LHD is only one among many kinds of robot actor, changing the mine’s technological shape. Mining is slowly changing from being a series of discrete tasks by different actors. Each smoothing works towards turning the mine into a continuous process with greater ongoing measurement and control, in the name of efficiency (continuous mining is on the long-term agenda for many miners).
The story is not that the mine contains robots — it is the whole mine itself that is becoming robotic. More and more components afford remote sensing, feedback and continuous control. Surveillant components (cameras, sensors, robot mounted cameras and so on), offer miners various kinds of agency that bring into play more consistency in managing control flows. The flow of crushed copper ore takes the ore to the stockpile measures the ore as it passes on a weightometer.
The conveyor belt takes crushed ore to the stockpile
Beyond the Northparkes itself, Rio Tinto has an eye to the future. In the Pilbara WA, it has introduced the enormous robotic dump trucks, autonomous drills, and soon autonomous trains. The robotic mine of the future is being built one component at a time, motivated by deeper ambitions of efficiency and control. For now, miners’ bodies and minds remain the dominant actors in most mining practices. The inspiration for efficiency in the ‘Mine of the Future’ operates as a present guiding vision as both internal mantra and PR rhetoric.
The vision of a mine without humans on site is, perhaps, compelling for many. Certainly it allows management to control. Many workers prefer the conditions of remote operations and control centres. Some external observers see the value of this change. Human bodies are clearly outside their element when digging up elements. Bodies are inherently vulnerable in underground environments, and in the presence of massive machinery and explosives. Safety is the mine’s ubiquitous guiding force. Miners’ flouro jackets and safety helmets are a uniform for those avoiding risk.
The body’s capacities to complete tasks repeatedly, and precisely, are also limited, in comparison with many emerging devices. However, the introduction of new devices is quite uneven. On the site, hi-tech gear sits alongside traditional tools. The mine uses up-to-date monitoring systems alongside a tag board at the mine entrance. Each miner must post their tag onto the appropriate spot on the Surface Tag Board when they go underground. Until all the tags are accounted for, there will be no blasting.
Safety serves a double role, imposing control over risky situations, and justifying greater control over miners’ actions. At one level, mining control regimes are undoubtedly justified by the high level of risk. An accident in this mine in 2003 killed four workers (Hebblewhite 2003). On the other hand, Danger is management’s collaborator, justifying tighter control over the workforce. The logic of the safety / surveillance pair is gradually bringing to mine sites a regime of control (Deleuze 1992). Remote systems, feedback, and constant training of workers is less the mode of surveillance from outside, and more control over thresholds of movement.
The risk of deviance is tripled when the possibility of surveillance, the actual risky environment, and the technologies placing the worker under control combine. Control displaces and reconfigures the labouring body for as long as it takes to remove the bodies from risks. When explosives are involved there is no option but to remove the workers bodies from the the location.
Dynamite is a 150 year-old technology that introduced non-human force of explosives to reduce hand-digging. The technique of block cave mining used at NorthParkes is an efficient (but not particularly safe) technique that uses explosives to create massive rockfalls underground. These funnel the fractured ore into draw-points, leaving the ore exposed, but in the dangerous location under rockfall.
The showcase of the site is the Sandvik Automine LH514ELHD: a bright orange vehicle with a large scoop at the front. The vehicle can be controlled remotely from the surface. It also features laser scanners and intelligence that allow it to take control of the vehicle to follow a trail towards the surface. This remote-controlled and autonomous system was considered a trail-blazing implementation in 2010. These new technologies remove operators people from the most dangerous places, and returns them to a more controlled environment.
Becoming the load in a Sandvik Loader Hauler Digger (LHD).
The robotic components: laser scanners guide this robot vehicle by following dead-reckoning tags deep underground, guiding the LHD.
This installation at Northparkes is strategically important for the Swedish company that produces this vehicle. The Australian mining environment is dominated by Caterpillar. It is also part of rapid changes in mining that are withdrawing human bodies, and into control rooms. These are changing the profile of workers, and possibly jettisoning those who don’t have the right profile of expertise.
Rio Tinto’s open day is itself a form of smoothing, building relationships, and removing the potential obstructions in public opinion or expectations of potential employees. Rio Tinto is very active in controlling perceptions of the company. They produce an array of reports, websites, media releases and videos. For example, ‘The Miracle of Copper‘ offers an award-winning, company friendly account of the processes of copper mining. Using the latest vehicles: LHDs and open days; training and public videos; websites and conference presentations — Rio is communicating the many of the values of Rio’s ‘Mine of the Future’. The company has extended their regimes of control away from disciplined secrecy (such as in Ok Tedi) and towards smoothed operations of PR and automation.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7. Hebblewhite, B. K. (2003). Northparkes Findings – The implications for geotechnical professionals in the mining industry, 1–8. (see links)
Rio Tinto (2010) ‘Ore processing’ Northparkes website http://www.northparkes.com.au/ore_processing.aspx