The Rise of the Mining Robots. SCMS Virtual DEN 2021.

2021 Sammler K. and House-Peters, L. The Rise of the Mining Robots: New Technologies for Subaqueous & Subterranean Sensing for Iron Extraction in Oceania. Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Denver, CO. 17–21 Mar.

TITLE: The Rise of the Mining Robots: New Technologies for Subaqueous and Subterranean Sensing and Iron Extraction in Oceania.

AUTHORS: Katherine Sammler, Helmholtz-Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity and Lily House-Peters, California State University Long Beach

ABSTRACT: A robotic revolution is underway in the mining and mineral extraction industry, both on land and off-shore. New extraction frontiers are being enabled via a surge of robotic technology development, experimentation, and deployment across sectors in the mining and associated goods movement industries. For the nascent seabed mining industry, robots are essential due to the physical extremes of pressure, temperature, and lack of oxygen. On land, the adoption of emerging technologies of hyper-extraction promises a new mining future that is safer for human workers and significantly more efficient for extractive industries. This is especially important as traditional mineral and metal reserves are depleted and access to increasingly remote, difficult, and dangerous spaces of subaqueous and subterranean extraction are required.  

The replacement of the human body with rapidly evolving constellations of sensing systems and autonomous robots in extraction landscapes is creating a radical transformation in spatial relations, producing a tension between physical distance from sites of extraction with increasingly intimate ways of knowing geologic matter via data proliferation. As these emerging techniques of extraction at once serve to physically distance the miner from the mine, they simultaneously produce novel relations between humans and more-than-human matter via granular, multi-spectral, and richly textured information that streams from the mines. Thus, the mine is reconceived as a double treasure trove, where the seams of the earth are both ore and data rich. This shift allows for a profound reimagining of matter and mattering, and associated regimes of care, through these hyperreal illuminations.

This paper will investigate two sites, the geological matters of iron-rich sandy seafloors off New Zealand and the banded iron formations of Western Australia. We approach iron as element, medium, and archive, and as an analytic that draws these two remote sites into a global infrastructure of relations. Our analysis will draw on theory from geography, media studies, and science and technology studies (STS) and empirical evidence to explore the mediating technologies, including their effects and affects, that are deployed to contend with the contrasting subaqueous and subterranean mediums and the multiplicity and specificity of the human and more-than-human relations in each site.