Here is the abstract for my paper at the 2012 Cultural Studies Association of Australia conference. I presented it on December 5, 2012.
Mining automation, displaced labour and materialities of communication
Digital Cultures, University of Sydney
Information systems, remote operation and robotics are currently being introduced into mines around the world. As miners reconfigure communication, control and labour, mining practices that have barely changed in a century are being transformed. This paper analyses innovations such as remote operation of mining, and autonomous systems as media changes, as well as changes in labour processes. The paper follows in reverse the historical arc of Harold Innis, who began in geographical economics (cod, fur, railways in Canada) before pioneering a materialist, longue durée historical media theory.
Mining is among the most basic material human practices. The blasting, loading, hauling, processing and shipping of iron ore is a rudimentary process performed on a huge scale. Digital systems don’t immediately change these material practices, but introduce new information and control flows. The autonomous Komatsu trucks now hauling ore in the Pilbara are little different physically from the human-driven fleet, but afford a precision, continuity, and smoothness of operation that human drivers could not tolerate. Digital media are valued in mining for their greater ‘efficiencies’, and their centralising and visualisation of monitoring and control of mine sites, which can be thousands of kilometres apart. These changes in machine/material communications and autonomy have implications for the kinds of work, the kinds of workers, and the kinds of communities that can cooperate with the mines, and many other workplaces, of the future.
Notes for Chris Chesher on ABC Northwest (Karratha)
September 3, 2012.
At 1030am I talked with Cristy-Lee Macqueen from ABC Northwest.
Mine sites are changing, as robotic technologies are taking on communication and control roles previously held by people. These changes have been coming for some time, but there has recently been a shift from trialling autonomous systems towards using them in production.
In 2008 the first autonomous trucks were first introduced experimentally, carrying waste products at Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine. The trials seem to have been a success, as the five Komatsu autonomous trucks covered 570,000 kilometres over 897 days at work between them until February this year.
The old model: Komatsu 830 with human drivers.
In late 2011, the autonomous trucks were reassigned, entering the iron ore production process along with five new trucks, hauling ore at the Junction South East pit of Rio’s Yandicoogina mine.
These ten trucks will undoubtedly be joined by more new autonomous trucks. Rio Tinto reached an understanding with Komatsu in Novermber 2011 to buy 150 Komatsu Autonomous Haulage System trucks over the following four years. It’s not clear what the impact of the iron ore price slump will be on these acquisitions, or how they will fit into Rio’s overall processes.
Komatsu documents that these imposing trucks are fitted with a range of sensors that allow them to operate very safely and accurately. They use laser, radar, GPS, and communications systems to help follow a digital map of the mine site with a lot of precision. The trucks are coordinated by Rio’s control centre 1500 km away, in Perth.
In addition to these developments, Rio has committed over $400 million to automating trains over the next few years. Other parts of the mining process, such as drills, are being automated, or being tagged with location beacons.
Safety is one of the motivations for introducing autonomous systems. A driverless vehicle can’t injure the driver. Autonomous systems don’t have lapses in attention, or drive erratically.
Another reason is to increase production efficiency. Autonomous trucks don’t take breaks. They don’t need to work in shifts. Together, these autonomous systems can work towards the goal of continuous production, where the mine produces an uninterrupted stream of ore.
I’m an academic at the University of Sydney. I am here in Karratha trying to get a sense of how people in the Pibarra feel about the changes to mining work as mining automation is introduced. I’d appreciate if anyone with experience or opinions about mine automation to call in. I’m recording this program, and I’d like to use the transcript in my research. You can find more about my project on my blog https://followingrobots.wordpress.com
Whether these goals of safety and efficiency are achieved, it seems likely there will be changes to the experience of mining. It may affect the social life of mining towns.
To bring up a very different example, when mobile phones became available, they seemed at first to be just a phone you could carry around. In fact, they were quite different from fixed phones. They allowed people to change the way they organised their lives. Rather than make detailed arrangements ahead of time, people with mobiles could easily change plans at the last minute. With smart phones, people could make images and change them, making their own media.
Of course, an automated mine is very different from a community of mobile users. The control centre (opened in 2010) gathers detailed information across several mine sites, centralises control, and provides a place for collective expert decision-making. Remote operation allows operators to take over some stages of production, and allows a small number of people to control many machines. The mine site increasingly becomes a rationalised, controlled and regulated rock factory.
Advocates point to potential benefits of automation for workers. It can take away dangerous, dull and dirty work that nobody wants to do. Mine automation may reduce risks of injury and death. By reducing workers on site, it may reduce fly-in-fly-out work, allowing expert operators to work in urban control rooms. This may take social and economic pressure away from remote mining communities. See also BAEconomics Report.
But there are some potential draw-backs: some people may lose their jobs to autonomous systems, and these changes may raise industrial pressures. The high degree of control over mine sites may be extended to new expectations for those working alongside autonomous systems. The dependence on planned communications systems and GPS guided technology may bring some fragility to autonomous operations, in comparison to the more resilient and adaptable human operated systems.
The long term implications of large scale use of autonomous systems are yet to be revealed. As WA will soon host the largest fleet of autonomous mining vehicles in the world, the unanticipated implications, and the qualitative shifts in mining practices, are likely to play out here.
If you have experience or opinions about mining automation, please leave your comments below. I may use these comments in my research.