Robotics, driverless tech are taking over mining jobs

Is mining a bellwether for automation’s impact on employment?

coal industry - job automation

Coal is transported via conveyor belt to the coal-fired Jim Bridger Power Plant. The coal is supplied by a mine owned by PacifiCorp and the Idaho Power Company, outside Point of the Rocks, Wyoming.

Credit: REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

In the next decade, the mining industry may lose more than half of its jobs to automation, according to a new report. That's not based on future technologies, but on automated equipment being deployed today.

The mining industry is primed for automation. It's capital intensive, buys expensive equipment and pays relatively well.

This industry is adopting self-driving trucks, automated loaders and automated drilling and tunnel-boring systems. It is also testing fully autonomous long-distance trains, which carry materials from the mine to a port, according to the report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Canada.

A broader question is whether mining is a bellwether for other industries. There's no clear answer, but what Aaron Cosbey, a development economist with the institute and a report author, can say is this: "Where you can find robotic replacements for human labor you tend to do it."

Cosbey estimates that automation will replace 40% to 80% of the workers at a mine. New mines and those with many years of life left are the prime candidates for automation.

Automation's impact will affect the high-wage countries the quickest, "and is going to be keenly felt," Cosbey said.

Most affected will be miners in the lesser-skilled trades, including heavy-equipment operators, drivers and maintainers. This will increase demand for people with IT skills who can set up and operate the automation systems -- but at far smaller numbers than the people automation displaces. Local communities, dependent on mining employment, will be hard hit.

Driverless technology, the report said, can lead to a 15% to 20% increase in output, a 10% to 15% decrease in fuel consumption and an 8% decrease in maintenance costs. Maintenance costs are reduced because this is "self-aware machinery" and can monitor itself and signal emerging problems.

Self-driving trucks that operate above ground are cited as examples of automation in this industry, but Volvo recently announced a self-driving truck that can operate underground as well.

The U.S. mining industry employed 634,600 people in 2014, according to data from the National Mining Association. It created another 1.3 million indirect jobs.

Coal mining, because of coal's contribution to climate change, is politically explosive, but it's a relatively small employer. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in a recent report, put the number of workers at coal mines at 74,900 in 2014. Overall, coal employment fell 6.8% from the prior year.

The government report on coal mining doesn't assess automation, but the data hints at it.

West Virginia had the largest decline in the average number of employees in 2014, the government notes, "declining by 1,951 employees (9.6%), despite only a small reduction (0.5%) in statewide total coal production.

"While there were fewer coal mine employees in the United States in 2014, the average production per employee hour increased by 7.6%," the government found. Increased productivity per employee may be an indicator of technology improvements.

This story, "Robotics, driverless tech are taking over mining jobs" was originally published by Computerworld.

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