Will a robot steal my job? How disruptive technologies are changing environmental practices in mining

May 24, 2018

Peter de San Miguel shares his thoughts on how disruptive technologies are changing environmental practices in mining.


By Peter de San Miguel

The speed of automation in mining is gathering pace. The industry is embracing robotics and automated processes, especially those that can increase productivity, safety and the quality of the ore being sent to mill and market. As with all automation, there is often a fear among field workers that their jobs will be replaced by machines. How legitimate is this fear?

Peter de San Miguel, the Discipline Lead – Approvals and Compliance at Stantec in Perth, will present on this topic at the upcoming Goldfields Environmental Management Group (GEMG) Workshop held in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia, May 16-18, 2018. His presentation, “A Robot Stole My Job – Being an Environmental Practitioner in the Age of Disruptive Technologies,” will examine how the next 30 years could look for environmental practitioners. His talk takes place at 11 am on Tuesday, May 17.

Some of the disruptive technologies that de San Miguel will speak about include:

  • A tool that detects the presence or absence of organisms in water bodies. Developed by Stantec in collaboration with the University of Guelph, in Canada, and Precision Biomonitoring, the device called the eDNA detects small traces of DNA shed by organisms through bodily fluids, skin cells or other secretions. The tool permits field workers to detect the contents of water samples without having to collect the organisms themselves – allowing results within hours, rather than weeks.
  • Drones offer opportunities for mining companies to collect data quickly and inexpensively. Traditionally, on-the-ground survey crews would examine vegetative rehabilitation at a mine site. With the introduction of drones, the job is not only automated, it can deliver much more data, more accurately, than a human field crew. Drone technology is advancing so rapidly that it will soon be able to not only tell how much vegetation covers a given area, it will also confidently identify particular plant species. Suffice to say this will provide big benefits in time and worker safety in remote, arid environments. “We now get very comprehensive data sets from drones, and over the next few years, the technology will take big steps forward for the industry,” said de San Miguel.

Yet there are challenges that come with this new avalanche of data that was formerly gathered by field workers. While an increased amount of data can improve the scientific confidence, bigger and more data sets also require more analysis than smaller sample sets. The analysis should be done by qualified field workers who know how to interpret the data, yet as older field workers retire, the industry must ensure that younger workers are developing the required skills. “The industry needs on-ground experience and specialist knowledge. An absence of these skills could potentially create an issue as we move forward,” de San Miguel said.

Another potential downside of big data sets is how they are perceived by regulators. Whereas previously regulators would be satisfied by a series of samples collected by field workers, now the efficiency of collecting bigger greater data sets could lead regulators to ask industry to increase the intensity of data collection. “It’s a global trend that regulators are putting more responsibility back on mining companies and they might require several times more samples than were taken previously to give a much larger data set, thus increasing confidence in the mine rehabilitation approach,” says de San Miguel.

New environmental technology as it relates to mining is exciting, and something that should be embraced, not feared, by industry professionals. While drone technology could soon move to the point where this method of data collection is superior to human field work – there is no reason that humans and machines can’t co-exist during the data collection process.

As we move into the future, technology such as drones may be the primary means of gathering environmental data, but there will still be a need for practitioners who have adapted their skills to manage and interpret the outputs of this technology.

In terms of environmental practices, the industry is in flux. We have sophisticated technologies at our fingertips, but we are still operating within a human paradigm. Making the shift out of the human paradigm will face plenty of obstacles, not just the fear of being displaced by technology, but a sense of denial that we even need to change. There is also the fear of “attaching your cart to the new horse” too early, before it has been proven.

While there will be challenges that come up as environmental practitioners start to feel more comfortable with new technology, it doesn’t have to be embraced all at once. Technologies that best suit the individual or application can move ahead, while the rest are left to be implemented at a more appropriate time.

“With all disruptive technologies one has to be aware and willing to continuously learn while critically examining all the aspects of the technology to see what will be relevant,” said De San Miguel. “It reminds me of a quote by science fiction author William Gibson, who wrote ‘The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’”

Content originally published on mining.com.


About the author
A snowboarder and triathlete, Peter leads an energetic life. He brings that energy to his work visiting mines and coming up with tailored environmental solutions. As team lead for approvals and compliance in our Perth office, Peter and his team help guide our clients through the management of all environmental aspects on their operations, while ensuring they comply with legislative requirements. He also manages our mine closure software, PRAC™.

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