The trucks are huge, measuring as tall as three stories high and carrying loads in excess of 500 metric tons. They are constantly on the move, kicking up dust at the Rio Tinto mine in Pilbara region of Australia. The only odd part about this massive movement of earth is the fact that the trucks are driverless; they’re drones, working steadily and continuously without human touch. Rio Tinto’s mine of the future project is underway and includes robots that enter mines first to sample soil and take pictures of support systems to keep humans at a safe distance. The Swedish company Sandvik has also deployed autonomous heavy equipment and robot vehicles in several mines around the world.
New robots developed in New Zealand have neural networks onboard that can test mine tunnels and, like mine inspectors, can detect flaws and risks. Normal guidance systems for autonomous vehicles depend on GPS, which is not available underground, and so mine robots use ultrasonic and RF signals to identify where they are. Sandvik’s robots use constant contact with operators above ground via Wi-Fi signals. Rio Tinto is working on an autonomous rig drill that can bore holes and even assess various rock strata on its own. Drone-based mining is another example of digital technology completely restructuring an industry.
Taking risky human tasks and getting machines to do them is good for curtailing human injuries, but that switch also reduces the number of jobs that humans can do. Autonomous trucks are displacing decent-paying jobs, a money-saving efficiency for the company but a troubling reality for the unemployed and the consumer economy that depends on their having salaries to spend in markets and stores. As machines steadily eat away at the human job market, what industry is going to provide new jobs, or are we headed toward steadily higher unemployment?