Mining Robotics and Media Change

Chris Chesher

Abstract


Introduction

Almost all industries in Australia today have adopted digital media in some way. However, uses in large scale activities such as mining may seem to be different from others. This article looks at mining practices with a media studies approach, and concludes that, just as many other industries, mining and media have converged. Many Australian mine sites are adopting new media for communication and control to manage communication, explore for ore bodies, simulate forces, automate drilling, keep records, and make transport and command robotic. Beyond sharing similar digital devices for communication and computation, new media in mining employ characteristic digital media operations, such as numerical operation, automation and managed variability. This article examines the implications of finding that some of the most material practices have become mediated by new media. Mining has become increasingly mediated through new media technologies similar to GPS, visualisation, game remote operation, similar to those adopted in consumer home and mobile digital media.

The growing and diversified adoption of digital media championed by companies like Rio Tinto aims not only ‘improve’ mining, but to change it. Through remediating practices of digital mining, new media have become integral powerful tools in prospective, real time and analytical environments. This paper draws on two well-known case studies of mines in the Pilbara and Western NSW. These have been documented in press releases and media reports as representing changes in media and mining. 

First, the West Angelas mines in the Pilbara is an open cut iron ore mine introducing automation and remote operation. This mine is located in the remote Pilbara, and is notable for being operated remotely from a control centre 2000km away, near Perth Airport, WA. A growing fleet of Komatsu 930E haul trucks, which can drive autonomously, traverses the site. Fitted with radars, lasers and GPS, these enormous vehicles navigate through the open pit mine with no direct human control.

Introducing these innovations to mine sites become more viable after iron ore mining became increasingly profitable in the mid-2000s. A boom in steel building in China drove unprecedented demand. This growing income coincided with a change in public rhetoric from companies like Rio Tinto. They pointed towards substantial investments in research, infrastructure, and accelerated introduction of new media technologies into mining practices. Rio Tinto trademarked the term ‘Mine of the future’ (US Federal News Service 1), and publicised their ambitious project for renewal of mining practice, including digital media. More recently, prices have been more volatile. 

The second case study site is a copper and gold underground mine at Northparkes in Western NSW. Northparkes uses substantial sensing and control, as well as hybrid autonomous and remote operated vehicles. The use of digital media begins with prospecting, and through to logistics of transportation. Engineers place explosives in optimal positions using computer modelling of the underground rock formations. They make heavy use of software to coordinate layer-by-layer use of explosives in this advanced ‘box cut’ mine. After explosives disrupt the rock layer a kilometre underground, another specialised vehicle collects and carries the ore to the surface.

The Sandvik loader-hauler-dumper (LHD) can be driven conventionally by a driver, but it can also travel autonomously in and out of the mine without a direct operator. Once it reaches a collection point, where the broken up ore has accumulated, a user of the surface can change the media mode to telepresence. The human operator then takes control using something like a games controller and multiple screens. The remote operator controls the LHD to fill the scoop with ore. The fully-loaded LHD backs up, and returns autonomously using laser senses to follow a trail to the next drop off point. The LHD has become a powerful mediator, reconfiguring technical, material and social practices throughout the mine. 

The Meanings of Mining and Media Are Converging

Until recently, mining and media typically operated ontologically separately. The media, such as newspapers and television, often tell stories about mining, following regular narrative scripts. There are controversies and conflicts, narratives of ecological crises, and the economics of national benefit. There are heroic and tragic stories such as the Beaconsfield mine collapse (Clark). There are new industry policies (Middelbeek), which are politically fraught because of the lobbying power of miners. Almost completely separately, workers in mines were consumers of media, from news to entertainment. These media practices, while important in their own right, tell nothing of the approaching changes in many other sectors of work and everyday life.

It is somewhat unusual for a media studies scholar to study mine sites. Mine sites are most commonly studied by Engineering (Bellamy & Pravica), Business and labour and cultural histories (McDonald, Mayes & Pini). Until recently, media scholarship on mining has related to media institutions, such as newspapers, broadcasters and websites, and their audiences. As digital media have proliferated, the phenomena that can be considered as media phenomena has changed. This article, pointing to the growing roles of media technologies, observes the growing importance that media, in these terms, have in the rapidly changing domain of mining. 

Another meaning for ‘media’ studies, from cybernetics, is that a medium is any technology that translates perception, makes interpretations, and performs expressions. This meaning is more abstract, operating with a broader definition of media — not only those institutionalised as newspapers or radio stations. It is well known that computer-based media have become ubiquitous in culture. This is true in particular within the mining company’s higher ranks. Rio Tinto’s ambitious 2010 ‘Mine of the Future’ (Fisher & Schnittger, 2) program was premised on an awareness that engineers, middle managers and senior staff were already highly computer literate. It is worth remembering that such competency was relatively uncommon until the late 1980s.

The meanings of digital media have been shifting for many years, as computers become experienced more as everyday personal artefacts, and less as remote information systems. Their value has always been held with some ambivalence. Zuboff’s (387-414) picture of loss, intimidation and resistance to new information technologies in the 1980s seems to have dissipated by 2011. More than simply being accepted begrudgingly, the PC platform (and variants) has become a ubiquitous platform, a lingua franca for information workers. It became an intimate companion for many professions, and in many homes. It was an inexpensive, versatile and generalised convergent medium for communication and control. And yet, writers such as Gregg observe, the flexibility of networked digital work imposes upon many workers ‘unlimited work’. The office boundaries of the office wall break down, for better or worse. Emails, utility and other work-related behaviours increasingly encroach onto domestic and public space and time. Its very attractiveness to users has tied them to these artefacts. 

The trail that leads the media studies discipline down the digital mine shaft has been cleared by recent work in media archaeology (Parikka), platform studies (Middelbeek; Montfort & Bogost; Maher) and new media (Manovich). Each of these redefined Media Studies practices addresses the need to diversify the field’s attention and methods. It must look at more specific, less conventional and more complex media formations. Mobile media and games (both computer-based) have turned out to be quite different from traditional media (Hjorth; Goggin). Kirschenbaum’s literary study of hard drives and digital fiction moves from materiality to aesthetics. In my study of digital mining, I present a reconfigured media studies, after the authors, that reveals heterogeneous media configurations, deserving new attention to materiality. This article also draws from the actor network theory approach and terminology (Latour).

The uses of media / control / communications in the mining industry are very complex, and remain under constant development. Media such as robotics, computer modelling, remote operation and so on are bound together into complex practices. Each mine site is different — geologically, politically, and economically. Mines are subject to local and remote disasters. Mine tunnels and global prices can collapse, rendering active sites uneconomical overnight. Many technologies are still under development — including Northparkes and West Angelas. Both these sites are notable for their significant use of autonomous vehicles and remote operated vehicles. There is no doubt that the digital technologies modulate all manner of the mining processes: from rocks and mechanical devices to human actors. Each of these actors present different forms of collusion and opposition. Within a mining operation, the budgets for computerised and even robotic systems are relatively modest for their expected return. 

Deep in a mine, we can still see media convergence at work. Convergence refers to processes whereby previously diverse practices in media have taken on similar devices and techniques. While high-end PCs in mining, running simulators; control data systems; visualisation; telepresence, and so on may be high performance, ruggedised devices, they still share a common platform to the desktop PC. Conceptual resources developed in Media Ecology, New Media Studies, and the Digital Humanities can now inform readings of mining practices, even if their applications differ dramatically in size, reliability and cost. It is not entirely surprising that some observations by new media theorists about entertainment and media applications can also relate to features of mining technologies.

Manovich argues that numerical representation is a distinctive feature of new media. Numbers have always already been key to mining engineering. However, computers visualise numerical fields in simulations that extend out of the minds of the calculators, and into visual and even haptic spaces. Specialists in geology, explosives, mechanical apparatuses, and so on, can use plaftorms that are common to everyday media. As the significance of numbers is extended by computers in the field, more and more diverse sources of data provide apparently consistent and seamless images of multiple fields of knowledge. 

Another feature that Manovich identifies in new media is the capacity for automation of media operations. Automation of many processes in mechanical domains clearly occurred long before industrial technologies were ported into new media. The difference with new media in mine sites is that robotic systems must vary their performance according to feedback from their extra-system environments. For our purposes, the haul trucks in WA are software-controlled devices that already qualify as robots. They sense, interpret and act in the world based on their surroundings. They evaluate multiple factors, including the sensors, GPS signals, operator instructions and so on. They can repeat the path, by sensing the differences, day after day, even if the weather changes, the track wears away or the instructions from base change. Automation compensates for differences within complex and changing environments.

Automation of an open-pit mine haulage system… provides more consistent and efficient operation of mining equipment, it removes workers from potential danger, it reduces fuel consumption significantly reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and it can help optimize vehicle repairs and equipment replacement because of more-predictable and better-controlled maintenance. (Parreire and Meech 1-13) 

Material components in physical mines tend to become modular and variable, as their physical shape lines up with the logic of another of Manovich’s new media themes, variability. Automatic systems also make obsolete human drivers, who previously handled those environmental variations, for better or for worse, through the dangerous, dull and dirty spaces of the mine. Drivers’ capacity to control repeat trips is no longer needed.

The Komatsu driverless truck, introduced to the WA iron ore mines from 2008, proved itself to be almost as quick as human drivers at many tasks. But the driverless trucks have deeper advantages: they can run 23 hours each day with no shift breaks; they drive more cautiously and wear the equipment less than human drivers. There is no need to put up workers and their families up in town. The benefit most often mentioned is safety: even the worst accident won’t produce injuries to drivers. The other advantage less mentioned is that autonomous trucks don’t strike. 

Meanwhile, managers of human labour also need to adopt certain strategies of modulation to support the needs and expectations of their workers. Mobile phones, televisions and radio are popular modes of connecting workers to their loved ones, particularly in the remote and harsh West Angelas site. One solution — regular fly-in-fly out shifts — tends also to be alienating for workers and locals (Cheshire; Storey; Tonts). As with any operations, the cost of maintaining a safe and comfortable environment for workers requires trade-offs. Companies face risks from mobile phones, leaking computer networks, and espionage that expose the site to security risks. Because of such risks, miners tend be subject to disciplinary regimes. It is common to test alcohol and drug levels. There was some resistance from workers, who refused to change to saliva testing from urine testing (Latimer). Contesting these machines places the medium, in a different sense, at the centre of regulation of the workers’ bodies.

In Northparkes, the solution of hybrid autonomous and remote operation is also a solution for modulating labour. It is safer and more comfortable, while also being more efficient, as one experienced driver can control three trucks at a time. This more complex mode of mediation is necessary because underground mines are more complex in geology, and working environments to suit full autonomy. These variations provide different relationships between operators and machines. The operator uses a games controller, and watches four video views from the cabin to make the vehicle fill the bucket with ore (Northparkes Mines, 9). Again, media have become a pivotal element in the mining assemblage. This combines the safety and comfort of autonomous operation (helping to retain staff) with the required use of human sensorimotor dexterity. 

Mine systems deserve attention from media studies because sites are combining large scale physical complexity with increasingly sophisticated computing. The conventional pictures of mining and media rarely address the specificity of subjective and artefactual encounters in and around mine sites. Any research on mining communication is typically within the instrumental frames of engineering (Duff et al.). Some of the developments in mechanical systems have contributed to efficiency and safety of many mines: larger trucks, more rock crushers, and so on. However, the single most powerful influence on mining has been adopting digital media to control, integrate and mining systems. Rio Tinto’s transformative agenda document is outlined in its high profile ‘Mine of the Future’ agenda (US Federal News Service). The media to which I refer are not only those in popular culture, but also those with digital control and communications systems used internally within mines and supply chains.

The global mining industry began adopting digital communication automation (somewhat) systematically only in the 1980s. Mining companies hesitated to adopt digital media because the fundamentals of mining are so risky and bound to standard procedures. Large scale material operations, extracting and processing minerals from under the ground: hardly to be an appropriate space for delicate digital electronics. Mining is also exposed to volatile economic conditions, so investing in anything major can be unattractive. High technology perhaps contradicts an industry ethos of risk-taking and masculinity. Digital media became domesticated, and familiar to a new generation of formally educated engineers for whom databases and algorithms (Manovich) were second nature. 

Digital systems become simultaneously controllers of objects, and mediators of meanings and relationships. They control movements, and express communications. Computers slide from using meanings to invoking direct actions over objects in the world. Even on an everyday scale, computer operations often control physical processes. Anti-lock Braking Systems regulate a vehicle’s braking pressure to avoid the danger when wheels lock-up. Or another example, is the ATM, which involves both symbolic interactions, and also exchange of physical objects. These operations are examples of the ‘asignifying semiotic’ (Guattari), in which meanings and non-meanings interact. There is no operation essential distinction between media- and non-media digital operations. Which are symbolic, attached or non-consequential is not clear. This trend towards using computation for both meanings and actions has accelerated since 2000. 

Mines of the Future

Beyond a relatively standard set of office and communications software, many fields, including mining, have adopted specialised packages for their domains. In 3D design, it is AutoCAD. In hard sciences, it is custom modelling. In audiovisual production, it may be Apple and Adobe products. Some platforms define their subjectivity, professional identity and practices around these platforms. This platform orientation is apparent in areas of mining, so that applications such as the Gemcom, Rockware, Geological Database and Resource Estimation Modelling from Micromine; geology/mine design software from Runge, Minemap; and mine production data management software from Corvus. However, software is only a small proportion of overall costs in the industry. 

Agents in mining demand solutions to peculiar problems and requirements. They are bound by their enormous scale; physical risks of environments, explosive and moving elements; need to negotiate constant change, as mining literally takes the ground from under itself; the need to incorporate geological patterns; and the importance of logistics. When digital media are the solution, there can be what is perceived as rapid gains, including greater capacities for surveillance and control. Digital media do not provide more force. Instead, they modulate the direction, speed and timing of activities. It is not a complete solution, because too many uncontrolled elements are at play. Instead, there are moment and situations when the degree of control refigures the work that can be done.

Conclusions

In this article I have proposed a new conception of media change, by reading digital innovations in mining practices themselves as media changes. This involved developing an initial reading of the operations of mining as digital media. With this approach, the array of media components extends far beyond the conventional ‘mass media’ of newspapers and television. It offers a more molecular media environment which is increasingly heterogeneous. It sometimes involves materiality on a huge scale, and is sometimes apparently virtual. The mining media event can be a semiotic, a signal, a material entity and so on. It can be a command to a human. It can be a measurement of location, a rock formation, a pressure or an explosion. 

The mining media event, as discussed above, is subject to Manovich’s principles of media, being numerical, variable and automated. In the mining media event, these principles move from the aesthetic to the instrumental and physical domains of the mine site.

The role of new media operates at many levels — from the bottom of the mine site to the cruising altitude of the fly-in-fly out aeroplanes — has motivated significant changes in the Australian industry. When digital media and robotics come into play, they do not so much introduce change, but reintroduce similarity. This inversion of media is less about meaning, and more about local mastery. Media modulation extends the kinds of influence that can be exerted by the actors in control. In these situations, the degrees of control, and of resistance, are yet to be seen. 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Mining IQ for a researcher's pass at Mining Automation and Communication Conference, Perth in August 2012.

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Keywords


media; robotics; mining



Copyright (c) 2013 Chris Chesher

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