Australia’s largest coal producer BHP Group (ASX: BHP) has announced it will automate 300 jobs in Queensland’s Bowen Basin following the conversion of 86 Komatsu trucks to autonomous haulers next year.
BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) will introduce the technology to its Goonyella Riverside coal mine near Moranbah, making it the latest miner in the area to embrace robotics for the sake of performance efficiencies and worker safety.
The converted trucks are designed to increase operational hours and deliver more consistent cycle times while reducing risk exposure and decreasing safety incidents.
They will enable more material to be moved efficiently and safely, creating a related increase in productivity.
The first converted trucks will arrive onsite in mid-2020 with full roll-out expected to take 24 months.
This decision will see Goonyella become the first BHP-operated mine outside of the Pilbara region to move to autonomous haulage systems.
BMA said the technology shift would complement – not replace – jobs held by the local workforce.
“This the decision will not result in any employee redundancies either forced or voluntary,” said asset president James Palmer.
“Autonomous haulage will help us improve safety and productivity performance, and it is our people who will be at the centre of making this change a success.”
But the CFMEU remains unconvinced, saying that BHP will face community backlash if the introduction of autonomous vehicles leads to job losses.
“BHP can choose to put the interests of the workforce and local community at the centre of their automation strategy or simply chase profits by replacing good local jobs with robots,” the union stated.
It called on BHP to commit to no forced redundancies for workers affected by the automation and the introduction of new roles in other parts of the business to offset any changes in job numbers.
Goonyella is not the first BHP site to accelerate the use of transformative technology.
In 2014, the company completed a trial of driverless lorries made by Caterpillar – the world’s largest heavy equipment manufacturer – at its coal mine in New Mexico.
Closer to home, the Jimblebar iron ore mine near Newman – which opened in 2014 and became a test site for driverless truck technology – was the first in BHP’s Pilbara iron ore portfolio to go fully autonomous in 2017.
BHP said its autonomous haul truck fleet could top 500 within the next four years across its iron ore and coal sites.
But it was mining giant Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) that pioneered the concept of driverless trucks in 2015 when its Yandicoogina and Nammuldi sites became the first in the world to start moving all of their iron ore solely by fully remote-controlled vehicles.
The vehicles are controlled by workers at an operations hub in Perth, 1,500 kilometres away.
The trucks carry over 20 million tonnes of high-grade ore per month and run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Rio estimated the technology could save 500 work hours per year and reduce worker risk from fatigue brought on by the repetition of driving haul roads.
The company is clearly a fan of the technology – in 2017, Rio announced it would expand its autonomous fleet by the end of 2019 to over 140 trucks.
In mid-2018, it revealed plans to create its first “intelligent” mine at the planned $3.8 billion Koodaideri iron ore project, which will integrate extensive automation and digitalisation technologies over a 30-year lifespan.
Koodaideri is expected to produce around 40Mt per year from 2021, but could be expanded to yield 70Mt or more at a later date.
Rio has partnered with Caterpillar for the supply of 20 autonomous haulage trucks and four autonomous blast drills at the mine, as well as automation technologies and enterprise systems.
It will also supply a range of regular loaders, dozers, graders, water carts and diggers.
BDO Australia believes automation is the future of mining and companies that ignore the trend could pay a hefty price.
In a 2018 report on the future of mining, the firm said those companies that have already incorporated technology into their operations have seen their revenue streams live on, while those that haven’t have fallen short.
“The value of harnessing technology is clear – driverless technology increases mining output by [up to] 20% while cutting fuel and maintenance costs by 15% and 8%, respectively, and improving safety exponentially,” the report said.
The company predicted that by 2020, robots will have replaced more than 50% of mining personnel – many of whom will be retrained to run the technology controlling the robots – and mining accidents will be cut by 75%.