Thursday 6th Aug, 2020

How can robots benefit bulk handling?

There are plenty of jobs in the bulk handling industry that are dull, dirty or dangerous, but soon humans may not need to do them.

Over the past few decades, thousands of jobs have been replaced by robots.

In the research paper Mechanical Boon: will automation Advance Australia?, The Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science estimates that 44 per cent of Australian jobs are highly susceptible to automation.

Robots excel in jobs that are usually dull, dirty or dangerous, and can improve safety by removing humans from the equation.

The researchers also found new opportunities and jobs begin to flourish as industries moved to automate  processes, freeing up resources to employ workers in high value, high skilled and high paid roles.

However, the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV) says to harness the benefits of automation, concentrated programs that re-skill and support workers that lose their jobs will require development.

Michael Milford, ACRV Chief Investigator, says there are plenty of opportunities across the entire bulk handling sector for automation.

“Australia has been a traditionally resource-dependent economy, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. Whether it is mining or agriculture, finding ways to optimise and automate sections of the supply chain will improve efficiencies and our competitiveness in global markets,” he explains.

“In fact, Australia has been a pioneer for automation in the mining industry. Mining is an inherently dangerous profession, and even before robots were being implemented, companies were using technology like remote control vehicles to get people out of mine sites.”

ACRV has been working with the Queensland Government and multiple industries to help develop systems that can be deployed commercially.

Professor Milford says that there are a lot of challenges that need to be overcome in order to move the technology from an idea to the workforce.

“For example, there are environmental factors that could limit a robot in an underground mine. It’s often dark and there will be oncoming vehicles shining lights onto the cameras, which could confuse them,” he says.

“Because of this, you have to make sure the low-level artificial intelligence built into the system is smart enough to deal with these scenarios.

“There’s also a lot invested into safety procedures for the robots to ensure they aren’t a risk to people or property around them, with features such as proximity detection or simply ensuring they are separated from human workplaces,” Professor Milford says.

Already mining giants such as Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue have embraced automation. More than one billion tonnes of ore has been hauled by Rio Tinto’s fleet of autonomous trucks as part of its mine of the future vision.

The company has also launched the AutoHaul system, which it claims is the world’s largest robot. The AutoHaul is an autonomous train, made up of three locomotives and carrying around 28,000 tonnes of iron ore from the company’s mining operations in Tom Price to the port or Cape Lambert, a 280-kilometre journey.

An operator in Perth sets the route for the machine, but once it begins its journey, the on-board computers and computers at the operations centre take over. They ensure the train keeps to the speed limit, doesn’t collide with other trains and that nothing is obstructing the level crossing.

Rio Tinto aims to create a safer and more productive process by removing the need to change out drivers at the end of shifts. Changing drivers has the potential to add more than an hour to each journey and requires drivers to be transported 1.5 million kilometres each year.

Much of the work performed by robots focuses on moving materials from one place to another, which has a number of benefits. A robot doesn’t get tired, bored or distracted, potentially leading to high levels of safety and operational uptime.

Additionally, the processes a machine undertakes are inherently trackable, allowing managers to get a better overview of the complex processes occurring on site and find further optimisations.

Professor Milford says that a major reason mining companies are investing into automation is because even small improvements to productivity can lead to much higher dividends.

“That’s very important within an industry as competitive as mining, as it can help set you apart from the competition and save a lot of money in the long term,” he says.

“The mining industry realises innovation is critical and has been funding research and development across multiple different projects.”

While mining has been at the forefront, other industries have begun to see the flow on effects of the technological development.

Robot revolution

Robotics are beginning to make their way into industries across Australia, such as agriculture, construction and logistics.

Professor Milford says there has been rapid progress over the past five years in the robotics space, thanks to cross pollination between industries.

“Ports in particular were a big reason for this development, which was just another logical step forward technologically. Australian ports have been taking up technology to automate the movement and loading of shipping containers.

“We’re also seeing a big push for consumer autonomous cars which in turn could potentially inspire new procedures that could be used for fertilising crops.”

Agriculture is a key market for automation, with ACRV finding an ageing population, weak soils and long distances from farm to urban centres requires innovative technology.

Professor Milford says agriculture is one of the holy grails when it comes to robotics, as the benefits could be enormous, but there are still a lot of roadblocks facing the technology’s development.

“It’s such a good idea to have some level of automation involved with agriculture, and we’ve already seen robots that can pick capsicums or spray weeds,” he says.

“The challenge is building a machine that is able to not only recognise what a capsicum is, but how to correctly cut, grab and transport it reliably. Once you get that level of versatility, it could be applied to any number of similar roles, such as logistics in a warehouse.”

One factor that has been slowing development of the technology within Australia is its relatively small talent pool.

ACRV released its Robotics Roadmap in 2018, which found Australia’s small population and market limited the scale to perform research. It also says there is a lack of national focus on robotic technologies in areas where Australia can excel.

Professor Milford says it is important to ensure Australia has the expertise to help transition to higher levels of automation.

“Making sure the education system is able to train people for the careers that are becoming available is critical to new job creation,” he says.

“Another priority is to ensure there are enough large-scale research initiatives where people can make a difference. It’s more than just funding for research – a major draw is the feeling of being on the cutting edge.

“We’re already seeing amazing leaps in what technology can do for the industry, and I’m excited to see what comes next. Hopefully, that will be technology that makes it easier to make work everywhere more engaging.”