If the last year has taught the mining industry anything, it would be the sheer unpredictability of the sector. Commodity prices continued to dip toward unprecedented lows as the anticipated resurgence of commodities appears farther away than the industry had hoped. Miners are left to brace for more possible bad news in 2016.

But that's not to say that there are not still opportunities to shave costs, improve productivity, and position for the upswing. Deloitte's "Tracking the Trends 2016" report details several strategies that will help companies navigate the mine field that is today's mining industry. Deloitte’s top strategy? Investment in innovation.

"One strategy involves a continued investment in innovation," the report suggests.
"Companies embracing innovation are improving mining intensity whilst reducing people, capital, and energy intensity."
"In fact… some miners have realized energy saving of 10-40% by investing in renewable energy installations, deploying innovative energy technologies, and driving towards more automated mine processes to optimize energy consumption."

Beyond improvements in energy consumption, miners can focus on automating both processes and vehicles to achieve significant productivity gains. In an article to World Coal, ABB's Adrian Beer suggested that the integration of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) can help miners achieve dramatic efficiency gains.
"[IT/OT convergence] allows the entire operation to optimize its production processes to maximize efficiency improvements, sometimes as high as 5-10%, which are results that drop straight to the bottom line."
As sensors become increasingly affordable and as equipment becomes more internet-capable, mining companies will be able to collect and analyze large amounts of data enabling them to pinpoint drains on productivity.

Mobius Command and Control software allows unmanned vehicles to perform in hazardous areas without endangering the operator.
Our Mobius Command and Control software allows unmanned vehicles to perform in hazardous areas without endangering the operator.

"The move toward autonomous vehicles and automated technologies has already revolutionized mining operations," reads Deloitte. "As the 'intelligence' of these machines grows, they will be able to perform increasingly complex tasks, including hazardous activities--reducing labor costs and enhancing productivity as a result." Mining major Rio Tinto demonstrated in numbers released in October that a network of autonomous haul trucks in the Pilbara region outperformed a manned fleet by an average of 12%.

Investment in innovation holds many benefits to mining companies, but this is only one of the suggestions offered by the mining experts at Deloitte. To explore additional suggestions and to gear up for mining in 2016,

"Unfortunately, primarily due to risk aversion (of cost and technology) there is an old adage in the mining sector that 'miners like to be first to be second,'" says EY's Business Risks Facing Metals and Mining 2016 report which focuses on ten industry conditions that could create risks or opportunities for mining companies going into the new year. Amongst the risks highlighted by EY, innovation, or rather mining's natural aversion to innovation, makes the No. 10 spot.

"It is clear that compared with most other sectors, there is a deficit of transformational innovation in the [mining] sector," EY reported.
"The first automated truck was seen 20 years ago and yet there is not a complete fleet in existence at a mine."
The closest thing we have seen to having a fully automated fleet is Rio Tinto's Mine of the Future that touts a network of 69 unmanned haul trucks. Rio's competitors are working to catch up, but in 20 years should not the sector as a whole be farther down the innovation cycle with a technology that is clearly beneficial?

EY's point? Those that innovate will survive. Those that don't? Well, you get the idea.

So, where is the innovation? Driven by seemingly unending demand of the super-cycle's upswing and peak, mining companies were scaling with one focus: output. Little consideration was placed on productivity or innovation, only meeting demand as quickly as possible. However, with today's market now swinging the other direction, miners find themselves in opposite conditions with boards and investors highly averse to any spending outside of necessary operations.

Even amidst these conditions, EY suggests miners are still in a position for investment in innovation: "Just as 'necessity is the mother of invention,' so is super-correction the catalyst for fresh innovation in the sector." As short-term cost cutting methods have been depleted, the report goes on to recommend innovation as a major key to surviving the bottom of the cycle and positioning companies to take off when the anticipated upswing takes place.

As can be seen from the opening quote, though, mining companies that are interested in innovating face an uphill battle, both culturally and through current market conditions. Our aim today is to provide three ways mining companies can avoid the pain of incorporating innovation into their operations:

the Cover of the 2015-2016 EY business risks in mining and metals report

Sustainable mining is a responsible best practice of modern mining organizationsMining organizations are faced with balancing the location of ore deposits and environmental impact of obtaining them. Sustainability practices are designed to mitigate environmental and social impact during the normal course of work.

"Coal mining, particularly surface mining, requires large areas of land to be temporarily disturbed," says the World Coal Association. "This raises the number of environmental challenges, including soil erosion, dust, noise and water pollution, and impacts on local biodiversity." Mitigating the adverse impact on the environment is a challenge that extends to all types of resource extraction. Mines of all types are also faced with a potentially negative impact on social, safety, and political factors.

In recognition of these challenges, most mining companies are taking steps toward "sustainability," and many countries require a sustainability plan in order to maintain a license to operate. From Newmont Mining Corporation's mission statement, sustainable mining means taking steps toward environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and safety.

Sustainability Success Stories

Xstrata Coal's Westside mine concluded operations in 2012. Years before the closure, replanting and land reclamation efforts were already underway to develop a landscaped environment for the community to enjoy. Xstrata estimates the area will be completely reclaimed by 2035.

Watch the Westside Story Video...

Both GoldCorp and Vale contributed significant amounts of money to sustainable mining initiatives. From their 2013 sustainability reports, we find that GoldCorp spent $15 million on site reclamation to promote environmental sustainability, and Vale devoted $3 million to a global UN-backed anti-AIDS project to promote social sustainability.

Ingersol Rand drill
Some construction and mining vehicles, like this automated Ingersol Rand drill (pictured above), use a combination of mechanical, electronic, and hydraulic systems to control basic vehicle functions.

You're on your way to your car to run some errands. Think for a moment about what needs to be in place for you to achieve your errands. You need 1) to know where you're going and plan a path to get there, 2) a way to control the car—usually your hands and feet, and 3) to safely react to any variables that you encounter along the way.

From an ATV to a massive mining truck, automating any vehicle requires that each of these elements be addressed. The following article will help you understand the hardware and software technologies we use to address 1, 2, and 3 in the process of creating an autonomous vehicle.

Planning a Path
When we drive a car, we usually stitch together a path based on a set of memories which include possible routes, road construction, or rush hour traffic. Path planning happens in just a few seconds.

Robots must rely on other technologies to develop their plan. For example, using special software, a user draws a set of way points on a map for the vehicle to follow. A GPS antenna placed on top of the vehicle then tracks its position and makes sure that it does not wander off the path.

More advanced software can help users create complex vehicle paths that include additional tasks—such as picking up objects, load dumping, or activating cameras—that vehicles must perform at specific locations.

Controlling the Vehicle
In lieu of hands and feet, users need to have a way to control the basic functions of a vehicle: start/stop, acceleration, brake, transmission, and steering.

Remote control excavators at the Bingham Canyon Mine assist with clean up effortsRemote control excavators like the one seen here (above) have moved millions of tons of material as they assist in cleanup efforts at the Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

The particular flavor of automation we specialize in at Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) is driverless vehicle technology. We develop the hardware and software that converts vehicles from manual to robotic control. Those new to this technology might ask: "Why anyone would want to automate a vehicle?"

The first and probably the most compelling reason to automate a vehicle is safety. Many of our customers started their investigation into automation because they had some sort of safety concern.

For example, the well-known landslide at the Bingham Canyon Mine in April of 2013 created a significant safety hazard. The landslide left a massive amount of unstable terrain too dangerous for human operators.

ASI supplied the automation technology for six remote control excavators that could be operated from a safe distance, allowing cleanup to commence while also keeping the operators safe. The excavators have since moved millions of tons of material as part of the clearing efforts that are scheduled to extend into 2016.

The second reason to automate is productivity. We've spoken to a lot of people from the mining, farming, and automotive industries, and all seem to be having issues finding and keeping drivers. Simply put: people get bored. No matter what level, humans crave variety, mental stimulation, and want their jobs to mean something in the world. If stuck in a repetitive task, workers may lose attention to detail and productivity or may avoid jobs that appear boring altogether.

ASI started with John Deere in 2000
ASI began in 2000 developing early precision agriculture technology with John Deere. Over the next 14 years, ASI maintained a strong pedigree of partnerships with large OEMs and end users.

In The ASI Advantage, Part 1, we considered the first source of competition Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) faces, original vehicle manufacturers (OEMs). We discussed that while OEMs may appear to have an attractive automation solution, end users may find the solution's customizations are limited or find themselves locked into exclusive contracts that reduce their flexibility.

Whether providing more customization and flexibility or enhanced safety, ASI delivers an unmatched competitive advantage to our partners.

Depending on the robotic vehicle you're looking for, it may be more advantageous to seek out a third party to partner with.

In Part II, we'll discuss our second source of competition: vehicle robotics companies.

While the unmanned aerial vehicle industry is heavily saturated, the unmanned ground vehicle community is relatively small, populated mainly by research university breakoffs and a handful of established robotics companies like ASI. The technology that robotics companies use to automate vehicles is still evolving but the basic building blocks are fairly similar. End users and OEMs looking for the right partner may need to dig a little deeper than the technology to find the critical differentiators between the standouts in this community.

The following are some of the characteristics that make ASI stand out above our competition as a world leader in the industry:

ASI's automation technology is OEM agnostic
ASI's automation technology is OEM agnostic, making it very attractive to mining and farming operations with fleets made up of several different vehicle makes and models.

By nature, many business-to-business interactions require extensive due diligence before companies commit to a large scale purchase. We typically interact with our customers across a sales cycle of 3-12 months. During this due diligence phase, one of the topics that often comes up is: How does ASI stack up to other vehicle automation solutions in the industry?

Our hope is that the following two articles, The ASI Advantage, Part I & II, will help answer this important question.

We generally see competition from two sources: OEMs and mid-sized robotics companies.

First up are original equipment manufacturers (OEM) that offer their own automation solution. OEMs specialize in manufacturing and economies of scale.

Once a new product or feature is proven and engineered for assembly on the production floor, OEMs add it to their product offering. The drawback is that this process takes so long that OEMs may be limited on the automation solutions they provide.

For example, we recently had a discussion with an OEM that has a competing automation solution for one vehicle model, but they wanted to explore using our products to supply automation solutions for their other vehicle lines.

For example, we recently had a discussion with an OEM that has a competing automation solution for one vehicle model, but they wanted to explore using our products to supply automation solutions for their other vehicle lines.

Are robots stealing jobs from humans? If they are, is it really such a bad thing? The answers are complicated to say the least; in fact, some of the greatest minds in science and business are tackling—and arguing—about the answers. Debate continues to fly around conferences, universities, and the Internet as experts take sides. In January 2013, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired “Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?” indicating robots in a variety of industries are replacing the human workforce. 60 Minutes sparked emotions and breathed new fire into the debate.

So, are robots really stealing jobs? The short answer is: it depends on who you talk to.

"Technology is always creating jobs. It's always destroying jobs," said Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor of Information Technology at MIT in the 60 Minutes feature. "But right now the pace is accelerating. It's faster we think than ever before in history. So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to."

Brynjolfsson continued that the acceleration of technology is moving so rapidly that entrepreneurs and businesses can't develop the current technologies into new opportunities before the next big breakthrough hits.

In addition, while the economy is recovering, job opportunities are not. "Our economy is bigger than it was before the start of the Great Recession. Corporate profits are back. Business investment in hardware and software is back higher than it's ever been. What's not back is the jobs," said Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist for MIT's Center for Digital Business, in the 60 Minutes feature.

During the recession, companies used automation to reduce labor costs and sustain productivity. However, even though profits are back and companies again have the option of labor or automation, they're choosing automation.

"You are, of course, seeing that overall, some of the jobs are getting displaced simply because you can use machines to do it," argued Henrik Christensen, Professor of Robotics at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, in IEEE Spectrum’s podcast Robots Are Not Killing Jobs, Says a Roboticist.

"There are certain things that we can't do, where you need higher precision, [or] getting away from heavy lifting. These functions are getting displaced by robots… we're taking away jobs that humans shouldn't have been doing in the first place."

With more than 12 years of experience automating vehicles of all shapes and sizes, Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) has a lot to contribute to the robotics industry beyond just innovative technology. And that’s not something that is coming from us. Mel Torrie, President and CEO of ASI, continues to be a sought-after speaker for a variety of conferences, universities, and associations.

Since October, Mel has spoken or will speak at a variety of functions around the country:

Leadership Summit: Insights into Growing a Robotics Business:
Mel was one of the featured panelists in this session which discussed some of the things that entrepreneurs should be certain to address as they step into robotics. Other panelists included: Aldo Zini, CEO of Aethon and Lloyd Spencer, CEO of CoroWare. When to ship products, using customers to beta test and receive feedback, human resources, cash flow, and other issues were discussed by the participants. The following article from Henry Lenard of RoboBusiness goes more in depth on the session.

RoboBusiness Leadership Summit: National Robotics Initiative Discussion Panel (Keynote):
Mike Doyle, US Congressman and Co-Chair of the Congressional Robotics Caucus, was the main panelist at this session, along with Mel Torrie; Jan Westerhues of Robert Bosch Venture Capital; and Howie Choset, Professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The session was focused on supporting US leadership in robotics research, development, and commercialization.

ROBOTS Podcast: Autonomous Solutions, Inc.:
Mel Torrie goes online with the Robots podcast series to explain some of the projects that ASI has been involved with and how ASI has navigated to success in the difficult economic environment of today. Based out of Switzerland, Robots is a bi-weekly podcast series that gathers insight and innovations from robotics professionals and companies from all around the industry.