Report claims technology threatens national economy

THEY can replace you, they have the technology.

The latest advances in remote-control technology and automation mean machinery in Western Australia's Pilbara are governed by air-conditioned, button-pushers in Perth.

This has given rise to the threat that these control-centres could be shifted overseas from where orders are given for mining anywhere on the planet.

The latest report from the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency warns - and this is only in a worst-case scenario - that technology could herald a terrible hit to the national economy as outsourcing entices our best and smartest to head offshore.

It follows a BDO International survey of mining executives from Australia, Canada, United States, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Half of those executives surveyed said they would happily swap technology for labour this year if they could.

A BDO spokesman said mining was changing "from a blue collar to a white collar workforce" as workers from the coalface to the touch screen.

The AWPA's conservative and optimistic estimates suggest these advances will help build the mining industry.

But in a potentially harsher future scenario blanketed by gloom, jobs in the mining sector would fall as "remote mining technologies, not necessarily operated from within Australia, come increasingly into use".

Jock Cunningham - from CSIRO's Minerals Down Under research arm - said such a thing was not only possible, the CSIRO had tested it.

"We had a scale shovel operated by NASA out of Houston," Mr Cunningham said.

"That project was to test out some concepts for mining in space, which needed to be automated and remote-controlled.Yes, he did say mining in space.

"The technology can be made available now if someone wants to do it, put the effort into putting systems together to do that."

Mr Cunningham used the example of multinational miners Rio Tinto and now BHP Billiton who planned to use the off-site controllers in Perth.

"Once you do that - you extend the link between the cable, wireless and wires from something close to something far off - you could potentially do it anywhere in the world.

"I don't know of any company who are even thinking about doing that, but it is possible."

What Australian mine companies are doing are conducting research on building a fully-automated mine from scratch."Sometimes those plans don't come to fruition due to realities of the cost," he said.

"But there are certainly a number of companies taking a fresh look, making them fully autonomously from the start.

"These are Australian mines that I'm talking about. The thoughts are happening. Whether it will happen, we'll have to wait and see."

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