Automated mining is a process that uses robotics, computers, global positioning sensors (GPS), and other technology to remove or reduce the need for human labor. Rather than each piece of equipment being operated by a person, the trucks, drills, and various other pieces of heavy equipment are all designed or retrofitted with advanced robotics. This process of automated mining allows a relatively small number of people to monitor the entire operation from an offsite location. Some automated mining processes can operate without a single human employee in the chain between extraction and shipping because even the trucks and trains that connect the operation to a port may be automated.
Mining companies have sought increased automation since least the 1990s, though the technology to fully automate a mine did not exist until around 2008. At that time, mining companies entered into strategic partnerships with robotics manufacturers and other technology industries to achieve a greater degree of automation. One of the first automated mining projects was in western Australia, where an existing iron mine was outfitted with advanced robotics and other equipment as a testbed for a nearby fully automated operation. Since these mines were very remote, the plans included full automation of even the delivery system to bring the iron ore to port for shipping.
The process of automated mining is similar to various automated manufacturing processes, though the scale is somewhat different. Large-scale mining operations make use of very big equipment that must be monitored quite closely. In addition to advanced robotics that are capable of operating this type of machinery, GPS can also be used to track the location of each component in the system and also allow the machines to monitor their own positions in relationship to one another. These types of advances can allow a mine to operate with relatively little human interaction, though there is still a need for oversight.
Mines that have been automated typically have an offsite control center where the operations can be monitored by a number of human employees. Since these control centers are offsite, advances in communication technologies were also instrumental in the advent of automated mining. Each aspect of a mining operation can be watched from these control centers, and adjustments can typically be made as needed to increase efficiency. Close monitoring is also necessary in case anything goes wrong because there are no employees onsite to make allowances for broken down or malfunctioning equipment.