Despite the many opportunities that robotics brings to the mining industry, research and innovation in the area has declined in the past quarter. Experts stressed that the mining industry needs to further embrace this technology to fully transition to Mining 4.0. Furthermore, there is a unique opportunity for Mexico to lead the market in these developments.
“Robots and Artificial Intelligence are key to the future of the industry. Digitization is beginning to reach the mining sector. Much progress has been made in this regard, but robotics is just beginning. With mining facing harsher, cruder, acidic, dustier, windier, colder and hotter environments, the arrival of innovative robotic technology is costing a bit more. But it is certainly the future,” Patricio Rojas, CEO, Antara Mining, told BNamericas.
Robotic technology has become a focal point of mining innovation, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the sector and companies were forced to innovate further to ensure their projects could continue operating. Since then, robotics solutions have been used more widely to optimize operations and increase worker safety. Currently, robotic technology is mainly used to inspect tunnels, find minerals, detect toxic gases or chemicals, collect data and explore dangerous terrain without exposing the safety of workers, explained Rojas.
In the coming years, robotics and IT in mining expected to grow significantly, even outpacing several strong industries such as manufacturing and energy, Mining Technology reported. Nevertheless, despite the many opportunities that robotics represents, the number of patent applications related to robotics worldwide was 11 in 1Q22, 16 less than in the same period of 2021. Meanwhile, five patents were granted during 1Q22, just like in 1Q21.
During 1Q22, Honeywell International had the most patented robotics applications with a total of four. The company was followed by Caterpillar and Orica, with two patents each. Epiroc AB, Komatsu and Sandvik AB each had one, reported Mining Technology. Experts explained that one of the reasons for robotics’ stagnation in mining is that many industry leaders are not prepared for a future with fewer humans and more robots. Additionally, robotic technology can be a very expensive option for consumers. “Many people do not like these solutions because they are costly (or so it would seem until ROI is evaluated). However, they save lives and mitigate risk. We cannot put a price on safety. This represents an educational process, where miners need to understand why these technologies are a necessity,” Armando Guevara, CEO, Gtt NetCorp, told MBN.
Experts agree that change is necessary if miners want to remain relevant and competitive. As for unemployment fears regarding the transition to Mining 4.0, they say that while some jobs will disappear, many others will be created. Consequently, experts urge miners and technology providers to continue pushing for a more digitized and automated mining future.
“People often think that if we have an increased level of technology, then potentially their job becomes redundant or not needed anymore. But what we have seen in reality is that those jobs still exist, it is just that skills are different. Miners need to know this and embrace the technology, ”Mark Ryan, Vice President of Equipment Offering and R&D, Normet, told Mining Technology.
Mining leaders believe that Mexico can become a key player in the robotics industry, not only because it has become a major consumer of these solutions but also because it is producing them itself.
“Mexico has a very mature audience for innovative solutions. The key for current and future mining trends for geospatial and robotic technology will be in creating more efficient operations based on automated systems. Considering Mexico’s progress and potential, I hope that within the next 10 years Mexico takes the lead in the industry in Latin America and perhaps even the world,” Guevara told MBN.
As an example of the country’s efforts, Mexico will develop five nanorobots to be sent to the moon in June 2022 as part of a groundbreaking scientific mission to collect key minerals. The robots will measure the temperature of lunar plasma, electromagnetic waves and the size of regolith particles to better understand the potential of space mining. Once the moon has been explored further, asteroids will be studied next, reported MBN.
“No one has done this, nobody, not just in Mexico. We can make a difference in technology and for international cooperation that can then lead to important joint ventures to study minerals or undertake other scientific exploration projects. The future of mining is with robots," said Gustavo Medina Tanco, the UNAM scientist in charge of the project.
Previously, Deloitte announced that the mining industry has no problem innovating in robotic solutions. Adopting these, however, is what has been challenging. “Innovation in mining is as strong as ever. However, the widespread adoption of new technologies seems to remain limited,” said Deloitte. Despite the challenges, full integration and transformation of robot onboarding is expected to come between 2025 and 2027. According to the firm, the implementation of robotic solutions will differ based on the region and its attitude toward mining. Still, all miners will get there.