Robotic technology could hobble prospects of mine workers

UNSKILLED workers risk becoming increasingly obsolete and regional towns decimated as mining giants embrace new robotic technology for their operations.

Already Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are rolling out the equipment in waves on the western side of the country, with driverless trains and remote-controlled trucks being manoeuvred from bases in Perth.

New research from the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining warns these leaps could hobble the prospects of some workers.

In coming decades, as truck drivers and machine operators are replaced by off-site controllers, the shift could hit regional hubs as fewer workers are needed on mines.

The report from CSRM is the product of a three-year study backed by the CSIRO, University of Queensland, Curtin University of Technology, CQUniversity, Australian National University and the University of Technology Sydney.

Researcher Professor David Brereton said no mine would ever be human-free - maintenance, monitoring and environmental management would all require actual workers.

He said it was inevitable that others would become obsolete or look drastically different.

"If we just take the two areas where there is a lot of work happening, moving across to remote or autonomous operation," he said.

"The truck driving workforce is a fairly substantial part of a large mine, maybe 30%. It may even be higher than that.

"Yes, those jobs will go."

In Western Australia, the other professional casualty will be train drivers who can be replaced by driverless trains controlled from elsewhere.

The move to these automated or remote-controlled machines is also likely to improve productivity and safety.

BHP coal group executive Marcus Randolph referred to automation as "really sexy stuff about technology" in November last year.

Rio already runs a Mine of the Future website where visitors can try their hand at remotely controlling a crude haul truck.

Fewer roles could be bad news for mining towns, long used to the ebb and flow of human traffic heading to work.

"Our sense of it is that impacts are going to be the most obvious on the more remote mining regions," Prof Brereton said.

Prof Brereton said when the time came for companies to build these off-site hubs for controlling or monitoring machinery, they could be developed in regional areas.

And those drivers or operators worrying about their future?

"I would be thinking about - depending on your time in life - if there was a way to start re-skilling, it would be a smart thing to do," he said.