NEW ERA: Meandu Mine is two years into a trial of these giant, robotic trucks the size of small apartments.
NEW ERA: Meandu Mine is two years into a trial of these giant, robotic trucks the size of small apartments. Contributed

The robots are taking over mining

SCIENCE fiction is becoming reality at Meandu Mine, where robotic trucks the size of apartments meander through the operation south-east of Kingaroy.

Among the dust, three huge Hitachi EH5000AC-3 haul trucks drive themselves as they carry and dump 296 tonnes of dirt and rocks each.

The monstrous robots are part of Hitachi Construction Machinery and Wenco International Mining Systems' autonomous haulage system trials, which began in April 2013.

But with the trials still only two years in, a driver is always at the wheel even though they are not controlling the $5.5 million truck.

GPS, traffic-control systems, sensors and numerous cameras make up only part of the state-of-the-art technology used on the truck.

One of the brains behind the trial, Hitachi technical marketing support group manager Naoto Sannomiya, said two dispatchers also worked in the control room that had live feedback from Wenco's wireless communication technology.

Mr Sannomiya said one day, in principle, one person could manage 100 machines.

Wenco mining and automation implementation manager Sarah Wheeler said the autonomous trucks could halve the workforce, but ancillary and maintenance staff would be needed.

Not needing workers who require sick days, leave, and toilet and lunch breaks is one drawcard the automated trucks offer.

With the mining boom over, machinery automation is in demand for mines to gain a competitive edge and stay profitable.

Mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto already have launched into the world of automated mining.

There are hopes of developing remote-controlled blast-hole drills, tele-remote rock breakers, driverless ore trains and tele-remote ship loaders.

Hitachi Construction Machinery's Andrew Martin said the system aimed to include "increased safety, enhanced productivity, better predictability of performance and a reduction in overall operating costs".

"The vision is to introduce more advanced technological elements to the system which will increase the system's effectiveness in a productive working environment," he said.

But the trucks will not be available commercially before 2019 or 2020.

Mr Sannomiya said after that water trucks and excavators would likely be on the list for automation.

Hitachi's AC-3 truck series can be retrofitted, making the trucks either driver or autonomously operated with the flick of a switch.