As we all are aware, the world at the moment is in various stages of shutdown amidst the current situation with COVID- 19. As of the 3rd of April 2020, the current statistics show that there are over 1,000,000 infected with 50,000 deaths worldwide. Australia makes up just below 5,000 of the infected cases and 21 deaths. The impact of this virus has seen lines of hundreds of people in front of Centrelink, empty stores denying our basic needs, and a certain ambience of uncertainty for the future that lingers in the outside air. Every industry is currently taking hits, except for the toilet paper, pasta, rice and hand sanitiser industries, of course, which are making record profits. According to the latest statements released by most companies and government institutions associated with the resource industry, it has been declared that health and safety is the number one priority to the sector going forward. Every week we continue to witness the introduction of new protocols to mitigate against this unique outbreak event.

The only constant is change

Our lives have been uprooted and work inconvenienced with most face-to-face meetings moved to online, and daily updates of mass layoffs due to the current economic climate that has resulted, which has seen the rate of unemployment in Australia skyrocket. The current values of employment in the resource sector still, however, seem stable. According to an interesting survey conducted over the past few weeks, has found that 58% of companies in the resource sector are planning to maintain their numbers, and 1 in 5 companies plan to grow the current workforce over the next few months in Australia. Could it be possible to transition a company’s workload to 100% online, especially when it comes to large companies in the resource sector such as mining, which heavily rely on face-to-face, and outside work processes?

The current need for transition has forced all industries to introduce their own unique management plans to assist in the changes in work conditions. Let’s take WA as an example; there are currently over 120,000 active resource workers in WA (QLD has around 80,000 and NSW 40,000). To deal with the transition of face-to-face workloads to online has seen 2500 FIFO workers flown domestically to WA in a management plan to “keep the lights on” within the WA. This was also initiated to sustain the workforce, and ensure a stable power network in the WA. This is one of many plans to assist to keep people employed and sustain necessities such as electricity and freshwater.

Smaller companies and exploration taking a hit

On the other hand, we have seen quite a hit to some regions of the resource sector within the country recently. It was unfortunately inevitable that layoffs were to be witnessed countrywide. Consolidated Tin Mines has stood down most of its staff without pay, with the company admitting when work resumes, it will only require a smaller workforce. Talisman Mining in NSW has suspended all projects, and Heron Resource has also ceased all operations. International deals have also crumbled as a result. FAR had a new drilling operation overseas in Gambia and Senegal, but due to the close of borders and transportation, the company has suspended all work, putting hundreds out of work. The list of companies affected by this event never ceases to stop, with numbers growing every 24 hours.

Essential industry

The most pressing issue is the Australian economy’s dependency on the mining sector. The Mining Contribution Index, created by the International Council of Mining and Minerals, found that the low to middle-income economies are heavily dependent on the mineral industry. What will happen if many of those workers become unemployed, no one really knows, but with the current status of the financial and political climate, uncertainty is the primary feeling, especially with hundreds of projects and plans postponed and suspended to an unknown date.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

The Mining Industry vs COVID-19 2020

However, in the grand scheme of things, most of us are thankful that the industry has, so far, gotten this far without too many disruptions. With multiple large-scale companies still sustaining their workforce and continuing with the daily grind from home. There are, however, growing concerns about the economic impact that the major virus outbreak will have on the nation’s economy after this is all over. We continue to see global stock markets drop, commodity prices fall, and mineral production outputs globally dramatically decline. “It may take several months, or even years to recuperate and become a stable economy again” are the all too common statements given by the country’s top economic analysts.

Is automation an answer?

But, it is not all doom and gloom. There has been an interesting turn of events as the spotlight for alternative technology in these difficult times has turned to automated machines. Overseas, South Africa has already introduced an extensive workforce of automated machines to be remotely controlled to continue operations amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. The Syama underground mine in South Africa is the world’s first fully autonomous mine. The machinery can be operated 24 hours a day remotely, and sustain the majority of the current workforce employed at the mine.

There have been rumours here that the resource industry is suggesting the possibility of fast-tracking a number of various automated machinery to be deployed to a number of mines around Australia to continue to supply resources, in the attempt of relieving the pressure on the Australian economy. As it is unclear how long things will take to go back to normal, this may be a way of adapting to current conditions. Rio Tinto already has first-generation automated mine machinery in their Pilbara mines since 2008, with logistics operation, ore handling and processing all capable of being operated remotely via a control centre up to 1200km away from the mine site. Over the last decade, Rio Tinto has slowly made their transition to automation, with 1/3 of their entire mine haul truck fleets automated. BHP has also hinted that it has plans to roll out 20 autonomous trucks to its Newman East iron ore mine in the Pilbara by the end of 2020.

Meaning, we have the initial technology to begin autonomous mining to an extent. However, there haven’t yet been any official statements from companies Rio Tinto or BHP suggesting that this is definitely the way they will approach the current situation. This may be a viable solution to keeping people employed, and survive these difficult times. There have been many experts within the field, which have stated that we should be expecting to see a rollout of autonomous machines over the next few months, depending on how long the COVID-19 outbreak lasts.