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Commentary

Sudbury to mine cyberspace

David Robinson, Economist Laurentian University drobinson@laurentian.ca

David Robinson, Economist
Laurentian University
[email protected]

Will there be mining in cyberspace? The newest development in the Sudbury area mining supply cluster says “yes.” A new organization of Sudbury programmers is ready to move the region’s suppliers into cyberspace.

CodeOp was launched on March 15 to make Sudbury the cyberspace capital of Northern Ontario. Sudbury is already a technology centre, and Sudbury coders have a long history of working on programs for the mining industry. CodeOp makes the already strong local coding community into a recognizable centre for mining automation. It takes the local mining supply and services sector to a new level.

We are moving rapidly into a world of robotics, automation, big data, remote sensing, and artificial intelligence. These seemingly different revolutions all involve intensive computation. They are tied together by high-speed data flows over ubiquitous networks. Cyberspace is this world of interconnected computation.

Mining has been out front in introducing many new technologies. Aerial geophysics and remote sensing, for example, have been used for exploration in Canada from the time they were first available. These technologies made economic sense because of the country’s vast geography and rough terrain.

And autonomous taxicabs may be news in London, but gigantic autonomous trucks have been at work for years in the mining industry. By 2011, Rio Tinto had committed to buy 150 Komatsu driverless trucks for its Yandicoogina and Nammuldi mines in Australia. Rio’s trucks now run 24/7 every day of the year and each truck is estimated to save around 500 work hours annually. They also cut fuel costs, maintenance and tire wear by an astonishing amount. In Canada, Suncor is testing six 400-tonne Komatsu autonomous haulers in Alberta and plans to replace its entire fleet of big haulers with self-driving machines by the end of the decade.

Heavy hauling is especially well suited to automation: highly repetitive tasks that require extreme precision with very expensive equipment on private property with few people around are relatively easy to automate. Even so, an enormous amount of programming goes into making it work. The same techniques will soon be applied to other processes until much of mining is automated.

The big mining companies have started automating the easiest and highest value operations. The challenge and opportunity for suppliers lies in automating the many smaller and more diverse mining operations.

A heavy haul self-driving truck doesn’t live in cyberspace. Rio Tinto’s trucks are controlled through an operations centre in Perth, 1,200 kilometres away. Remote control and networked machines are part of the equation. In Sudbury, Inco was pursing this vision well before 2000, and Sudbury’s Penguin ASI was pioneering telerobotics by 2005.

Eventually, every piece of mining equipment more complicated than a shovel will have on-board processors. Eventually, every on-board processor will be connected to a network of some sort. Sophisticated geological models will be linked to mine layout models that keep track of every person and every piece of equipment. Artificial intelligence will identify optimal schedules. Ventilation systems will track people in underground mines and deliver air to where they are and where they are going. Automated drilling-blasting equipment will talk to unmanned continuous muckers. Consumables will be delivered by self-driving machines and ore will be removed on robotic trucks and conveyers.

This isn’t a vision of a mining paradise in the far future. It is the looming shadow of the next stage of a process already underway. It is an image of a mining industry that lives in cyberspace, using an army of robots to eat rock and deliver ore. It is an image of a mining supply industry producing billions of lines of linked program code.
And that is where CodeOp, Sudbury’s new coalition of coders, will be digging in.

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