For some visionaries in the mining field, a first glimpse of the promise that automation held for the industry may have come nearly 40 years ago when robots came to the rescue in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

With the site clearly off-limits to human workers due to the hazardous radiation levels, 1970s robots were the heroes of the day, performing a wide variety of tasks from data collection to videography, taking core samples, to the actual clean-up tasks such as scrubbing up debris and removing damaged walls. It wasn’t mining, per se, but the utility of the automated workers in a hazardous and challenging environment resonated with mining engineers.

Fast forward to 2016 and robotics has largely transformed the mining industry, with even more advancements likely on the horizon. That was the point of a recent article by Airobotics CEO and Co-Founder Ran Krauss featured on the WA Mining Club blog. The article explores not only the uses of drone automation in mining, Airobotics’ own innovative niche, but also a full range of technologies that are improving mine safety at the same time they are increasing both efficiency and productivity.

A game-changer for mining ops

In his post, Ran notes that automation has boosted the productivity at mine sites by some 25 percent. That’s an eye-opening figure for executives in an industry that is grappling with challenges such as uncertain commodity prices and a large number of maturing mines that mean lower grade ore and longer hauling distances.

In a climate such as that, mining has had little choice but to embrace technological solutions and to integrate them into every facet of the business. Hard hats, sweat, and big machines are no longer sufficient to do the job. In large measure, the gains are being driven by automated solutions such as haulage trucks and railcars, drilling tools, and blasting systems, as well as the widely varied uses of drones in the industry. Over time, the mining industry has adapted innovations from fields as different as agriculture and aviation and turned them to their own needs.

Today, automation has become so central to mining that new mines – the $10 billion Roy Hill project for one – are being developed with robotic solutions at the center of operations, Ran explained. That view is mirrored in a blog post by McKinsey and Company that argues for embedding the new technologies throughout mining operations and management.

The uses of drone automation open the door wider

Even as many of the on-the-ground, and under-the-ground, functions of mining have become automated, the emergence of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, has proven to be a uniquely versatile and cost-effective development for the industry. This is especially true since the advent of automated drones that can initiate, conduct, and complete a wide range of mining-focused missions entirely without human intervention, including take-off and landing, and data processing.

Such 24/7 versatility and efficiency, and the fact that they can operate safely in even the most remote and hazardous sites, has led to the dedication of drones to numerous crucial everyday purposes. From inspecting critical infrastructure or machinery, to digital terrain modeling, to providing surveying and mapping data and even evaluating stockpile information for accounting purposes, drones are gaining an ever-important role in the safe operations of diverse industries.

In other uses of drones, UAVs are regularly deployed to monitor traffic flow both to identify actual or potential bottlenecks in real time, and to visually inspect equipment across a site in order to identify maintenance issues and needs, among other operator-free tasks. Many of the uses of drone automation are safety related as well, since they can perform their various functions in mining environments that would pose safety threats to workers on the ground.

To learn more about the different uses of drone automation, download our recent white paper, “Automated Drones: A Giant Step in the Mining Value Chain” here

Where do the robots go from here?

It’s doubtful that the engineers at Three Mile Island back in 1979 could have foreseen the ways in which the robots they depended on were not only cleaning up a disaster site but also paving a path to the future for any number of industries, mining among them. Almost certainly, if they had tried to peer into the future they would have gotten it wrong.

In his article, Airobotics CEO Ran Krauss doesn’t claim any greater powers of clairvoyance. But he does venture a few thoughts that can guide planners and executives in just about any field.

Far from being the stuff of science fiction it once was, today automation is our everyday reality, and it behooves us to embrace it, optimize it, and put it to work for us, in the age-old field of mining no less than in any other facet of life and work. And that’s a truth that includes not only the revolutionary changes that have already come, but also the ones still around the corner.

To attempt to guess what they might be would not only be futile, Ran acknowledged, but would also have the unintended consequence of enclosing potential innovation in unwanted parameters: if we think we know what we’re looking for, we just might fail to see the unexpected discovery that’s actually there.