SCIENCE fiction is becoming reality at Meandu Mine, where robotic trucks the size of apartments meander through the operation south-east of Kingaroy.

Among the dust, three huge Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul trucks drive themselves as they carry and dump 296 tonnes of dirt and rocks each.

The monstrous robots are part of Hitachi Construction Machinery and Wenco International Mining Systems' autonomous haulage system trials which began in April 2013.

But with the trial still only two years in, a driver is always at the wheel even though they are not controlling the $5.5 million truck.

GPS, traffic-control systems, sensors and numerous cameras make up only part of the state-of-the-art technology used on the truck.

One of the brains behind the trial, Hitachi technical marketing support group manager Naoto Sannomiya, explained two dispatchers also worked in the control room which had live feedback from Wenco's wireless communication technology.

Mr Sannomiya said one day, in principle, one person could manage 100 machines.

Wenco mining and automation implementation manager Sarah Wheeler said the autonomous trucks could halve the workforce, but ancillary and maintenance staff would be needed.

Not needing workers who require sick days, leave, and toilet and lunch breaks is one drawcard the automated trucks offer.

Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul truck running with an autonomous haulage system. CONTRIBUTED / QLD200415ROBOTS3
Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul truck running with an autonomous haulage system. CONTRIBUTED / QLD200415ROBOTS3

With the mining boom over, machinery automation is in demand for mines to gain a competitive edge and stay profitable.

Mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto already have launched into the world of automated mining.

There are hopes of developing remote-controlled blast-hole drills, tele-remote rock breakers, driverless ore trains and tele-remote ship loaders.

Hitachi Construction Machinery's Andrew Martin said the system aimed to include "increased safety, enhanced productivity, better predictability of performance and a reduction in overall operating costs".

"The vision is to introduce more advanced technological elements to the system which will increase the system's effectiveness in a productive working environment," he said.

But the trucks will not be available commercially before 2019 or 2020.

Mr Sannomiya said after that water trucks and excavators would likely be on the list for automation.

Hitachi's AC-3 truck series can be retrofitted with the automation system making the trucks either driver or autonomously operated with the flick of a switch. 

Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul truck running with an autonomous haulage system. CONTRIBUTED / QLD200415ROBOTS1
Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul truck running with an autonomous haulage system. CONTRIBUTED / QLD200415ROBOTS1

The rise of the machines

THE rise of the machines sounds like impending doom to some in the mining industry.

Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union Queensland district secretary Tim Whyte foresees more danger and fewer jobs as mining giants dig deeper into the autonomous machinery world.

He is worried truck-driving jobs will not only be axed en masse, but machinery support staff fixing the robots could be injured if the people controlling the machines work outside the country.

Mr Whyte said it would be concerning if the automated system went the way of telecommunications companies with call centres overseas.

But Wenco mining and automation implementation manager Sarah Wheeler described the scenario as a "futuristic image".

She said there was definitely no plan for jobs to be outsourced overseas in the foreseeable future.

The plan would be give workers the different skills needed to keep the trucks in action.

The University of Queensland's Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining released a report in 2013 after BHP Billiton opened an automation centre.

Professor David Brereton said responsible mining companies could not afford to ignore the potential social impacts of large-scale automation.

He said Aboriginal Australians in remote communities had benefited from employment and business development opportunities provided by mining companies.

Prof Brereton said it was not about slowing technological change.

"A positive step would be for industry and government to work together on a strategic impact assessment," he said.

"This could help to quantify the implications for the workforce and regional economies, and make for a smoother transition." 

Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul truck running with an autonomous haulage system. CONTRIBUTED / QLD200415ROBOTS4
Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul truck running with an autonomous haulage system. CONTRIBUTED / QLD200415ROBOTS4

A look back at mining

ROBOTIC trucks are a far cry from the equipment used across the world in the mining industry in the 1800s.

Historians write of miners in the mid-1800s securing candles to their caps to see while at work.

Oil wick lamps were used as safety lamps.

Some 19th century mines had tunnels while others had shafts going straight down and ore buckets often were used to transport men down into and up out of the pits.

Women and children were known to work alongside men in coal mines.

In the early part of the 18th century much of the easily mined surface coal had been extracted and coal had to be brought up from deep mines.

It is written some miners had to go as deep as 2km beneath the surface to reach coal seams.

- APN NEWSDESK



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