A new study by the University of Queensland claims that the spread of automation and remote operation in the mining sector could lead to reduced job levels.

The study, by the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (CSRM), claims that although increased automation in the mining industry may lead to improved safety levels and greater competitiveness, these advantages will come at the expense of on-site jobs.

According to the study, Exploring the Social Dimensions of Autonomous and Remote Operation Mining: Applying Social License in Design, the emergence of automation technologies “offer(s) the potential for lower labour and operating costs, improved operational efficiency and a safer, more attractive working environment – all contributing to a more competitive mining industry.”

Professor David Brereton, report co-author and deputy of research and integration at UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, adds that the greater efficiency resulting from the large-scale uptake of automation will also have adverse consequences.

“A reduction in on-site roles is likely to reduce economic activity in the local and regional area, and could lead to a loss of population and services over the longer term,” he said.

A similar study conducted by BAEconomics has reached the conclusion that despite job losses and their attendant impact upon local economies, mining automation technologies were worth taking up due to the safety and efficiency advantages they provide.

According to the BAEconomics study, the costs of automation are “far outweighed by the benefits they can deliver.”

Rising profitability would help Australian mining companies in particular deal with their own challenges, including high operating and labour costs, a shortage of skilled workers, declining ore grades and carbon pricing.

“Concerns about a reduction in employment in the mining industry as a result of automation are misplaced,” the report says. “While some specific roles are likely to disappear over time, employment overall would be expected to grow faster while Australia maintains its competitive position.”

The studies come just as some of the world’s leading diversified miners, such as Rio Tinto and BHP Biliton, expand their use of automated transportation at iron ore operations in the Pilbara.

Last month BHP’s vice president of mine optimization Gavin Yeates flagged plans by the company to increase its use of automated processes as part of a shift toward “next generation mining,” while earlier this year Rio Tinto launched measures to increase its driverless truck fleet.