Game controller in Perth operations centre

What if gamers could become miners? 

Technology is changing the shape of the mining industry

LAST UPDATED: 9 September 2019


The games console would look familiar to any gamer but the eight large video screens less so.

"I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to play video games for a living," says Rio Tinto plant operator Blake McDonald as he crushes iron ore rocks 1,500 km away in the Pilbara. Blake is one of a growing number of employees in Rio Tinto's Operations Centre near Perth Airport.

Gamers can be miners: Blake & Payam

Rio Tinto crushing it in the technology area

Rio Tinto's automation programme in Western Australia is picking up speed with a number of new technology pilot programmes. The rock crushing process is joining driverless trains, trucks and drills as one of the parts of the mining operation being deployed and monitored by staff from the Operations Centre in Perth.

At the mine operations, rock-breaking arms sit above primary and secondary crushing stations. When rocks arrive that are too big to go through the the crushing stations, rock-breakers are called into action.

Rock-breaking using remote controlware is now being piloted by staff from the Operations Centre.

Process engineer Payam Lillo is one of the key members of the Rio Tinto team charged with bringing the remote-controlled rock-breaker online.

According to Payam, the automation of the rock-breaking process is not only making a safer workplace for Rio Tinto's people, but it is also delivering significant efficiencies. These range from reducing human error and maintenance cost to cutting travel time for staff.

And, like the example of maintenance-turned-truck driver Katie, it means that Rio Tinto is casting a much wider net for potential workers.

"The rock-breaker is operated by a gaming console exactly like the ones in living rooms and bedrooms across the country. So an ideal candidate for the job of operating the rock-breaker would be somebody who is not only into gaming, but has a good attitude towards safety and has problem-solving and communications skills," says Payam.

Blake McDonald crushing rocks
Blake at work crushing rocks via the game controller

From hotel to haul truck

At Rio Tinto, automation has been a part of our business for over ten years. This transition into the automated age of mining has seen new jobs created and people retrained in new technologies to help operate the equipment that will drive the Australian mining industry into the future.

Indeed, technology is changing the nature of mining so rapidly that the capacity to learn and to evolve is just as important as personal history and experience.

Katie Hill, pit controller, Rio Tinto

A striking example of the new miner is Perth-based pit controller Katie Hill.

Katie began her career in her native New Zealand working in the hotel industry. She spent her days taking bookings and ensuring customers were comfortable and safe on their travels.

Seeking new experiences and greater rewards, Katie relocated to Western Australia where she secured a position with Rio Tinto as a machine operator in one of their iron ore Pilbara mines.

After a couple of years operating equipment in the pit, Katie then expressed interest in becoming a central pit controller for the autonomous haulage operations.

She received initial training in the Pilbara, the heart of Australia's mining industry, then joined the team at the state-of-the-art Operations Centre in Perth, 1,500 kilometres to the south. Here, Katie now supports the remote management of the very trucks she once drove.

"It's certainly a change," laughs Katie, who still has trouble believing that she's gone from operating machines in the Pilbara to now controlling some of the largest trucks in the world all from an office down in Perth.

"It was a bit overwhelming at first," she admits. "But the team at Rio Tinto did everything to make sure the right training and mentoring was provided."

Katie says the ability to multi-task and to manage your time well are the skills most needed to succeed as a central pit controller.

"When things happen in the pit they tend to happen all at once. You need to be calm, a step ahead and proactive. You need to know where you are at all times," explains Katie.

"You have to manage mulitple trucks at a time. During the shift you are constantly in contact with the mine supervisor, operators and schedulers."