Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto has said its automated 'Mine of the Future' programme is critical in meeting a surge in commodity demands.
Tom Albanese, chief executive at the company, told shareholders at this week's AGM that the company was making "smart use of new technology and finding new ways to tackle problems such as locating new, deeper deposits".
Key technology includes automated trucks and trains running on specialist software, autonomous drilling and "smart" blasting. IT systems and innovation "can provide us with solutions to the challenges we face", he said.
As China and India "industrialise and urbanise", he said, demand will soar for consumer goods and heavy goods - a difficult challenge to meet as mineral resources are consumed fast in existing sites. He added: "For too long, our industry underinvested in its future, it did not do enough exploration, it did not train enough people and it did not build enough capacity to satisfy this surge in demand."
At the "heart" of the Mine of the Future programme, he said, was the "vision of better mining operations, greater energy efficiency, lower production costs, and improved safety and environmental performance".
The programme began in 2008 with an advanced remote operations centre in Perth, Western Australia, to manage operations in mines up to thousands of miles away. Remote-control 'intelligent' trains, drills and trucks operate within the group's iron ore mining operations, with Pilbara in Australia being the first site.
Pilbara uses FrontRunner trucks and IT control systems from supplier Komatsu. Artificial intelligence technology in the system learns the layout of the mine, how to recognise and avoid other vehicles and obstacles, and how to ferry loads around quickly and efficiently.
The Pilbara site is also testing high precision GPS, advanced wide area networking to improve machine control communication, and real time safety monitoring of personnel and equipment using proximity detection. Results are currently being analysed using what Rio Tinto said were "sophisticated modelling techniques".
The "unprecedented" levels of automation would "revolutionise the way mining has been conducted for more than 100 years", Rio Tinto said earlier this year. "Employees will work like air traffic controllers. They will supervise the automated production drills, loaders and haul trucks from a remote operations centre in Perth."