In the dusty red earth of Western Australia, robot trucks haul iron ore.
The trucks themselves weigh about 500 tons when loaded — they are truly massive. They operate more or less on their own, navigating mining roads connecting the sprawling Pilbara iron mines with a guidance system provided by global positioning satellites, radars and lasers. It’s part of $13 billion mining operation by Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining firms.
The robots are proliferating. Meanwhile, it’s the kind of technology the Pentagon has been seeking for supply trucks and convoys on the battlefield. This could be a test case.
Rio Tinto began testing its robots at Pilbara in 2008. There are two mines in the region using a total of 19 trucks spread across both mines. Four more trucks will start operations at a third site by the end of the year. That number may increase to a small army of 150 driverless trucks over the decade.
The trucks are “capable of performing normal haulage operations,” Kimberly Sceresini, a Rio Tinto spokesperson, told War is Boring in an email. This includes loading ore, dumping ore and traveling on roads. The trucks themselves are controlled by a human operator who is plugged in remotely, but they do not have remote drivers. Instead, the vehicles are given a set of waypoints and instructed to follow them — using sensors to avoid obstacles. it still takes a human operator to give the order to move.
Partly, the reason Rio Tinto is moving in to robot trucks is because there’s not enough people to fill difficult and hazardous mining jobs in a remote part of Australia. Go figure? “When we looked at our growth plans, we were not in a position where we thought we would find enough people to drive trucks,” James Petty, who heads up the company’s driverless trucks program, told The Australian in 2012.
The company also claims it can be more productive with the trucks — it’s more expensive to hire drivers and handle the logistics of moving them back and forth from the iron mines. But another reason, according to the company, is safety. You simply have fewer drivers hanging around giant machinery, or falling asleep on long (and boring) drives.
“If we can automate the mining systems,” Sceresini said, “We can take people away from pits and have them working remotely in safer, more comfortable environments. Our automated truck programs does this.”
This logic is also at work at American companies such as Google — which has its pilotless Google Car project — and industrial truck firm Oshkosh Corporation, which has developed an unmanned military supply truck called the TerraMax.
Some roboticists have argued that robotic vehicles should replace human-guided vehicles altogether once the technology matures. “People suck at driving cars,” robotics engineer and science fiction author Daniel Wilson asserted in 2011.
The same logic is at work at the Pentagon. Aside from TerraMax, which has received some support from the Defense Department, there is a litany of research projects including robot convoys, robot vehicles that can navigate in urban terrain and a robot Humvee. The Marines even have a robotic pack mule named GUSS. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — which oversees much of the Pentagon’s more far-out projects — also hosts regular competitions with robotic vehicles to see how they fare over miles of rough terrain.
But the reason why the technology is picking up in the mines is partly out of necessity. Partly because Rio Tinto can afford it. It’s also not particularly computationally challenging to move a vehicle down a mine road. Moving a four-legged machine over a rocky hillside is something else.
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