As the technology driving our mining industry advances – and as remote operations and autonomous machinery increase in capability – more and more positions are moving off site. We get the inside story from three workers who’ve switched the red dust for a desk job.
The remote controller
In an office overlooking the river in Brisbane’s CBD, among streets packed with restaurants, shops and city workers clutching takeaway coffees, staff such as Stacey Bell direct operations at a mine 800 kilometres away. In July 2016, BHP put control of its Central Queensland Blackwater Mine in the hands of its integrated remote operations centre (IROC). It’s one of several similar offices being established by mining companies to bring key jobs to capital cities.
“I couldn’t be happier and my family’s loving it, too,” says Brisbane-born Bell, who joined the IROC at the beginning of last year after doing fly-in fly-out (FIFO) work in administration roles on resources projects around Queensland for more than six years. Now living in the city, Bell says her work life is still a social one – and includes events such as a fancy-dress competition that’s held at BHP IROCs around Australia. “There’s a trophy so we get pretty competitive. We won the last one!”
Bell is one of the controllers overseeing the 50 trucks and 11 dig units at work on Blackwater’s pre-strip operation (essentially, it’s removing dirt). With GPS-based oversight of the fleet, she ensures the trucks are in the right place at the right time to collect their load (on her computer screens, they appear as icons moving around the pit).
Should a dig unit break down or a blast happen in one part of the mine, Bell sends the trucks elsewhere. The goal is to optimise the fleet’s movement to meet the day’s production target, a job that requires a combination of her eyes-on-the-prize nous and algorithms that suggest the best ways to meet those priorities. “The system can assign trucks for you,” she explains. “And we can lock the system on or off.” Automation or not, the IROCers keep constant watch.
Working in the city as part of the mining crew is “the best of both worlds”, says Bell. “We spend a week out there at the mine for onboarding then twice a year we go out for a week of familiarisation.” The site visits are spent, she says, “jumping into trucks and diggers, chatting with the operators and supervisors and building relationships with people who we talk to over the two-way [radio] – you get quite close to the crews on site.”
Several other BHP mines in Queensland are controlled from the Brisbane IROC, where more than half of the staff are female and come from industries outside mining, including emergency dispatch and air-traffic control. “We build off each other’s knowledge,” says Bell. “I can help with the lingo as I was around mine sites for so long but it’s really about being able to multi-task, make quick decisions and use the technology for the reporting.” She adds that because they’re “separated from the site”, being able to bond with people working remotely is a valuable skill. “We just had a guy from a sales background join and he’s slotting in quite well because that part is very easy for him.”
Throughout shifts at the IROC, the team spirit is buoyant, as it was during last Halloween’s fancy-dress comp. “We had a lot of fun,” says Bell. “Imagine a bunch of witches and gremlins controlling your mine!”
Brad Thorp worked for mining companies for eight years before he started recruiting for the industry 17 years ago. Today, he’s with Mining People International (MPI), a firm started by a couple of mining engineers from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. He says there are new jobs coming into the industry and upskilling is required for old trades.
“No longer does a diesel fitter just pick up a spanner – they pick up a laptop,” says Thorp. “There’s so much data being generated and they need to be able to analyse it and understand the diagnosis. Mechanics in the cities have been doing it for some time but now it’s for multimillion-dollar equipment, too. The experience and skills required to do that is a big shift.”
These days, electricians at processing plants deal with much more than circuit boards and machinery wires. “If they don’t have an instrumentation background, they’re very difficult to employ,” says Thorp. “The companies like it if they can do some programming, too.”
Without having a Certificate IV in Electrical (Instrumentation), on top of their electrician’s ticket, their value to the organisation is halved, says Thorp. “All the new plants are highly automated – they’re run by computers.” He says that school leavers and apprentices are across these requirements but MPI sees older workers who need to upskill.
White-collar roles are changing, too. Thorp cites Pilbara Minerals, which last year announced a deal to sell lithium directly to Chinese car manufacturer Great Wall Motors rather than to a commodities trader or processing plant. He predicts this kind of direct offtake negotiation will increase, requiring different skill sets and backgrounds. “Previously, they would have had offtake negotiators networking with, say, steel mills; now they want people networking with battery-storage companies.” This will likely see mining companies recruiting from the executive teams of their end customers.
Along with the decline in FIFO work (due to remote operations centres), Thorp says “there’s new and different thinking coming in across the board. Companies are considering diversity in all its aspects, not just gender diversity.” The stereotypical image of a mineworker in a hard hat, high-vis and steel-capped boots is fast fading.
“No longer does a diesel fitter just pick up a spanner – they pick up a laptop. There’s so much data being generated and they need to analyse it.”
The autonomous drill operator
For four years, Dave Bravos operated a giant blast drill at Rio Tinto’s West Angelas iron-ore mine in WA’s Pilbara. He’s still operating the same drill but instead of sitting in the machine’s air-conditioned cab in the red dirt and heat, he now sits on a desk chair in air-conditioned comfort at Rio Tinto’s operations centre near Perth airport, about 1300 kilometres away.
“There’s no noise or heat, which is a change from traditional manned drilling,” says Bravos, whose controls now include a joystick and a bank of computer screens. “I can also operate more than one drill at a time, with multiple drills at one desk.”
Bravos worked on drilling rigs at mine sites for nine years before moving to the desk job four months ago. “I needed a little training to operate via a computer rather than on the machine,” he says. “But it was a straightforward process and I adapted pretty quickly.”
The biggest shift has been the change of scenery. “You have to blow dust in their faces to make them feel like they’re in the Pilbara, otherwise, it’s too comfortable!” joked one remote operations centre supervisor to The Economist last year. “It does take a little getting used to, not being able to feel the controls,” agrees Bravos. But he’ll take it. “The whole drilling operation is a lot safer this way.”
Autonomous drilling systems (ADS) operate 24/7 to drill production blast holes and are part of Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future push, which includes driverless trucks and trains. The world-first ADS trial began at the West Angelas mine in 2008 and there are plans to expand operations at other sites this year.
Removing people from the pits makes mining less dangerous and there are measures to further increase safety. “The drill operates inside electronic safety zones and drilling is shut down if people or equipment breach the zone. The machine runs on a GPS-controlled grid so the potential to stray off the grid is prevented,” explains Bravos, who moves the monster machines around (they’re 15 metres tall, 20 metres long and seven metres wide).
“It also senses ground condition while drilling and automatically adjusts speeds and pressures to suit, which means it never works harder than it should but is always at optimum capacity,” he says.
“Basically, all that’s needed now is to set the machine up for the correct pattern and the drill will do the rest. It’s amazing really.”
The industry’s new jobs
Not only are data scientists becoming increasingly critical to mine operations, there’s a shortage in Australia. As Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques said at a lecture in Melbourne in March: “Ten years down the road I will still need 100 engineers but the ratio will be totally different: one-third [will be] mining engineers as we know them and two-thirds [will be] telecom, data scientists and so on.”
As more jobs move to operations centres, those who stay on site will need broader skills. In maintenance, this means workers will be required to have superior decision-making skills and must be able to interpret diagnostics. Using data analytics to drive predictive maintenance will be critical to the role, replacing the old break/fix model.
CONTROL SYSTEMS ENGINEER
There are a growing number of jobs for engineers experienced in fields such as 3D imaging, robot vision and mechatronic systems. Applications include the control of large-scale mining equipment using real-time 3D LiDAR technology,
a sophisticated system of sensors that can detect and distinguish people and objects without blind spots. Recruiters often look for engineers who have experience in developing 3D gaming software.
DIGITAL FORENSICS ADVISER
In the case of accidents and allegations, digital investigators support the work of legal teams. Experts in digital forensics and e-discovery (electronic discovery) are required to be on hand in many big mining companies.
Image credit: Illustrations by Jon Gregory.