Future Robot Geologist

Wanted: Digital Industrial Miners

Jobs Of The Future Part 3: Robotics, automation and data analytics are the next-generation tools for geologists and mining engineers

As the hunt for natural resources intensifies, mining companies face increasing challenges. The core issue? Productivity. Miners need to find ways to make the most of their existing projects and develop safe techniques and new strategies that will open up the mineral potential of unexplored parts of the planet — from harsh climes to sub-sea environments.

Autonomous vehicles, robotics, and data analytics are going to make such efforts increasingly possible, but individuals with a broad range of skills will be needed to drive it all. And the mining industry will require people who can integrate traditional engineering skills with digital technologies and data analysis techniques.

“[These people will] have the background to understand the data,” says Pearl Sullivan, dean of engineering at the University of Waterloo. “We’re going to be overwhelmed with data.”

Geology and earth sciences are fields that have historically been very different and separate from robotics and computational intelligence. That distance, however, is closing. More and more, mining companies are turning technologies such as robotics and automated vehicles to improve the safety in their operations and make routine tasks more efficient. Moreover, we will soon be able to embed multiple sensors within robotic systems to identify in real-time  the composition of ore bodies during drilling exploration and mining, giving engineers and designers capability to build better mine models and mining plans. Mobile robotics, meanwhile, are creating new opportunities to work in remote or extreme environments.

Thus, geologists with a data analytics skills set are becoming almost as valuable as the minerals they’ll find.

Progressive schools such as the University of Waterloo understand this hybridization of skills and are preparing students for it. The university’s mechatronics program, introduced in 2003, is a good example of trying to meet such needs.

The technically demanding — and increasingly popular — program integrates electronics, mechanical and computer engineering with systems design. Students learn to develop solutions for problems in a range of industries and design new electromechanical systems from scratch, Sullivan says, whether they’re looking at large, automated manufacturing processes or tiny sensors and instrumentation.

“Students coming out of multidisciplinary programs are extremely agile. They’re able to go into a new work environment and connect the dots very quickly,” Sullivan says. “They have sufficient breadth to understand how all these things work together.”

And that integrated knowledge holds the key to developing a stronger, more sustainable minerals industry for the future.


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