Mines without miners?

Not quite. Still, a technology boom in robots, drones, driverless trucks and unmanned trains is beginning to reshape one of the world's most labour-intensive industries, allowing development of mines in regions once thought too dangerous or remote to exploit.

Already about 200 driverless haul trucks are working iron ore mines, mainly in Australia. Meanwhile, mining giant Rio Tinto, which funds one of the world's largest non-military robotics programmes, will soon use unmanned trains to deliver cargo to the coast and set drones aloft at its remote mines.

Drones can monitor stockpiles, map exploration targets and track equipment and will eventually deliver parcels, according to consultancy Accenture - and on a schedule far ahead of that envisioned by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, who one day wants Amazon's books and DVDs delivered to customers via miniature helicopters.

"Come and see me in about October," says John McGagh, head of innovation at Rio Tinto in Brisbane, where staff use the world's largest multi-content touchscreen to monitor mining operations from Utah to Queensland.

"You will see drones flying around. That's not so long away."

Technological advances in the development of drones and robots will help create mines of the future in remote locations such as Mongolia that can be directed from control rooms in the US and Australia. BHP Billiton, the world's biggest miner, Anglo American and Rio are all in this automated global high-tech race, betting new equipment will help cut costs and improve returns as well as allowing them to exploit deposits so far considered too complex or too dangerous for humans.

While drones swarm overhead, the mines of 2030 may also see scuttling robots which map underground chambers to within a millimetre of detail with lasers or use automated drills to separate waste from valuable ore as they burrow into rock. At waste dumps, so-called molecular sponges created from crab shells will be used to extract every last metal particle.

"Drones will be able to shorten supply chains, and will change your ability to monitor, track and manage the key aspects of your mining business that are time-critical in remote places," says Nigel Court, Perth-based natural resources industry leader for Asia Pacific at Accenture. "One of the great things we'll see with drones is immediate spare part delivery, literally within hours, where right now it can take days."

Source: The New Zealand Herald - see full article