Trailblazers, tipping points and the ‘Silicon Valley of mining’

Richard Roberts

Can Australia’s mining capital become a global tech hub?

Speaking on a visit to the new A$30 million Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct north of Perth in Western Australia, the state’s innovation and digital economy minister Stephen Dawson said facilities such as the AARP were key pieces of the government’s 10-year vision for WA to be a “global hub of invention, investment, innovation and impact”.

The 51-hectare site is currently an expanse of sand, wire fences, some bitumen and dongas. A new HQ taking shape near the entrance is still a couple of months away from completion.

But a grand vision for the AARP to be a global centre of excellence for industry automation and robotics is already shared by about 30 companies who’ve started using it.

They’re a mix of start-ups, SMEs and heavyweights that now include Fugro.

As well as its technology testing and training utility the AARP gives the Dutch survey leader “the ability to collaborate with smaller start-ups, which isn’t always that easy to do”, according to APAC director of remote operations, Paul Mullins.

The precinct’s Dirt Lab, heavy haulage area and new energy zone present a microcosm of WA’s massive Pilbara and Kalgoorlie mining districts, complete with prominent commercial banners such as Imdex, Hexagon, Mineral Resources, Epiroc, Fortescue and Autonomo.

The state is seen to be brimming with mine heavy haulage autonomy, remote energy and mine operations control centres, survey drones, solar and wind farms, and electric underground and surface test vehicles. Autonomous heavy road trains, a A$2 billion radio telescope and new data centres are on the horizon.

Fugro’s Australian Space Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Control Complex, or SpAARC, in Perth’s CBD, a collaboration with the Australian Space Agency and WA government, was lauded this week at an international mine geology conference in the city.

“Perth and WA are an incubator for this [remote control and automation] technology and it’s amazing to think that we’ve got a mission control centre right here in Perth which is helping NASA go to the moon and go to Mars,” Northern Star Resources chief geological officer Daniel Howe said at the event attended by more than 600 scientists, engineers and other industry people.

“It’s absolutely incredible.”

The geology event run by one of the world’s major representative bodies for geoscience and mining professionals, the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, put a spotlight on a host of technologies enabling digital capture of geoscience data and ways this is changing workflows and paradigms, including training of future geoscientists.

WA and its $250 billion-a-year resources sector is, not surprisingly, at the centre of some of these changes.

“We’ve got three of our next seven conferences here in Perth [which is] very much what we describe as the Silicon Valley of the mining industry,” the CEO of the Melbourne-headquartered AusIMM, Stephen Durkin, said in his introduction.

“I hope you’ll agree it makes sense for us to hold more conferences in Perth.”

Durkin is not the first to invoke the Silicon Valley analogy.

Executives at Pilbara iron ore giants BHP and Rio Tinto have talked about WA’s potential to become the “Silicon Valley of the global mining industry”.

“I’m not the first person to make this comparison but there are some parallels between Silicon Valley and WA,” BHP CEO Mike Henry said back in 2019.

“The experience of sharing of knowledge and technology is easier here than anywhere else in the world.”

The view was echoed by Rio Tinto Iron ore boss Simon Trott last month when the company announced it was investing circa-A$14 million via UK-based start-up accelerator Founders Factory, which was setting up shop in Perth, into pre-seed and seed stage firms developing new mining technologies.

“That will bring significant investment, but also expertise, and really will help our local innovators to start up, scale up and hopefully make it big in mining in WA,” Dawson said at the AARP.

“Far too often in the past our start-ups needed to go over east, or indeed around the world, to make it.

“We’ve got to focus on ensuring there are as many opportunities as possible locally to keep those smart, amazing people and innovations right here in WA.”

Silicon Valley, the mecca of US tech innovation and finance, has its tech roots in mid-20th century semiconductor and computing companies. The San Francisco hub, with its dense network of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, engineers and researchers, plus the supply of new creative minds from universities such as Stanford and Berkeley, has no real comparisons worldwide.

The “Silicon Valley of mining” ambition for WA can probably be traced back at least 20 years.

In terms of an innovation hub drawing (and retaining) top-level talent, entrepreneurs, researchers and finance, the state and its capital have made gains in some areas in two decades.

And stood still in others.

Billions of dollars have flowed into mines running robotic trucks, drills and other equipment.

Perth-based Imdex became Australia’s first public billion-dollar “mining tech” company.

Another Perth mining-tech firm, privately-owned Micromine, was targeted by US-based AspenTech in a A$900 million deal that ultimately fell over due to the target’s extensive Russia exposure.

A Silicon Valley mining and construction tech firm, SafeAI, in 2022 won its first major mining mobile autonomy contract with a WA-based contractor, MACA, which is now part of the world’s largest contract mining group, Thiess. SafeAI has a large Perth presence. As does Utah-based rival, Autonomous Solutions Inc, whose key mining exposure is in the Pilbara.

NASA officials have become regular visitors to the state. Agency leaders addressed the first Indo-Pacific Space and Earth Conference in Perth in 2023.

A new consortium, Australian Remote Operations for Space and Earth, arose from a blueprint conceived by NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy and Woodside’s head of intelligent and autonomous systems, Russell Potapinski.

Curtin University’s critical minerals and resources technology focused Trailblazer program, part of a national series, has received tens of millions of dollars in industry and government funding and exponentially grown its intern headcount.

“We hear a lot about what is happening overseas with Google or Microsoft; how they are using artificial intelligence, and robotics, but what people don’t understand is that some of our mining industry partners are using stuff even further advanced than that,” says recent Curtin double degree (electrical engineering and computer science) graduate, Adil Khokhar, who is now project manager in the university’s CISCO-backed industry research program.

“And they’ve been using it for a while.

“When you when start studying computer science or data science, your main goal is … maybe I’ll get a grad job at Google or over east.

“You don’t think about the mining industry here in WA as a potential [avenue] to apply your knowledge.

“But that’s really starting to change. It genuinely is.”

WA mid-tier miner and services group Mineral Resources last year committed $2 million to the Curtin Trailblazer minerals research commercialisation program. Khokhar said the company was a leading adopter of automation and other technology.

“I think the rest of the industry will follow as well in how they collaborate with the university,” he said.

“All of this just means a better background for the students who are currently studying and a further pathway for them to work in the mining industry.

“That’s what we’re all about … is making sure that the skills that we’re developing here are retained within our biggest industry sector.”

Connecting mines and innovation money

“There is a lot going on in WA, there’s no two ways about that,” says Jeff Sterling, founder of Universal Field Robots, a Queensland-based scale-up with its flagship mining project in WA.

“They’ve been doing automation there for a long time now.

“They’ve got the robotics testing area. There are [college] training courses for the technicians needed to maintain large autonomous fleets.

“And I think obviously the state government gets it.

“Brisbane was really doing well and the state government was really supportive of a lot of development and they’ve really dropped the ball in the last year or so.

“WA has picked the ball up and is running with it now.”

Dylan Webb, CEO of Datamine, one of the world’s largest mining software companies, told “There is no doubt that there is a lot of mining expertise and digital expertise in Perth. And there are some great ideas and companies that have come out of the region. But it’s not the only one. We certainly see some really impressive groups in Latin America, in Africa and in Europe.

“I guess we’re happy to talk to smart people wherever they are.

“But it is true that there is a critical mass in Perth that’s noticeable, if you look around the world.

“The links between industry, academia [and] researchers … are growing.

“All the ingredients are there.

“And so you add that to that critical mass of all those people in that same location and it is well positioned.”

Kopernicus CEO Mike Kyriacou, who spent a decade in Silicon Valley before returning to Perth with his family in 2020, gave a keynote address at a 2023 Austmine innovation forum about the “mining landscape of 2035”.

He talked about the potential for technological disruption in and of the historically unbending mining industry.

Kyriacou told Perth was “like the on-ramp to the resource industry”.

He said WA’s heavy-industry and space remote control technologies, software and expertise would attract and possibly sustain the interest of the world’s biggest venture capital market “if there is a proven commercial outcome which can achieve massive scale”.

“Well-funded technology ventures, including NASA and perhaps SpaceX, on the other hand, could come to learn and adopt or acquire the capability.

“It’s really going to be a function not only of the practicality of the solution, but the ability for Australian resource giants to pilot new products and how quick and smooth that process can be.

“In the end, learning speed is critical.

“If there’s a commercially rewarding and efficient on-ramp for resource tech products with folks who have tackled and solved large, real-world resource tech problems, then we become a world-class niche in an industry humanity can’t do without.

“We don’t realise the edge and comparative advantage we’re sitting on here in WA.”

A report put out by CSIRO and the Tech Council of Australia last September which claimed to map Australia’s digital technology industry clusters for the first time, said renowned clusters such as Silicon Valley, Silicon Fen in Cambridge and Tech Central in Sydney had been shown by decades of economic geography research “to matter”.

“Firms inside clusters tend to grow faster, innovate more, compete and build wealth globally at the national scale,” the report said.

“Clusters aren’t everything, but they’re a critical component of effective industry growth and development strategy.

“Most of the world’s leading technology industry clusters have arisen from an interplay of government, industry and community dynamics.

“In most cases public and private sector investments, policies and strategies have played an important role.”

The CSIRO report suggested Perth and WA had a long way to go to catch and match eastern Australia tech hubs based on metrics such as digital workers and the market value of tech companies.

A fundamental gap has been the lack of venture capital available for and flowing into local tech-focused firms.

WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief economist Aaron Morey said last December the state was getting about 2% of venture capital funding available in Australia. The chamber was calling for a state government-backed $200 million VC fund to help WA become a “major innovation hub in the Indo-Pacific region”.

“WA has world leading skills in automation technology and clean energy thanks to a decade-long mining boom, but we need private investment to incubate the next big ideas,” Morey said.

A leading figure in the WA mining tech and tech advisory fields for 40 years, Ivan Gustavino, says: “We need to have more funds available to operate in this space specifically and they need to have a far better understanding of the risk-reward settings and types of returns they’re going to get.

“Otherwise those funds will just chase other things.

“That needs to be cultivated, and it’s not yet. It’s sporadic, it’s limited and it’s unfocused.

“So a bit of work to do on the funds side, which is one of the key pillars to pull off such an aspiration.”

Gustavino, the co-founder and managing director of Atrico, said any Silicon Valley of mining aspiration obviously required a vision of a future that promoted the collective advantage to be gained from shared ideas and wisdom. It required new layers of industry, SME and research collaboration and funding. Any vision needed to be built on a deep understanding of the core subject matter.

“Mining tech per se doesn’t really get any particular focus or support from government or government-affiliated research and development agencies,” he says.

“I think we’re highly fragmented at the moment in terms of the vision and the level of collaboration that is needed.

“We’re all street fighters here trying to fight for a market; mainly without a global perspective as well.

“Mining tech has probably only become an investment class in the last three to five years.

“The risk appetite is lower in WA, and Australia, than what it is in Silicon Valley for investing in tech generally, let alone mining tech.

“But even when you look at it with that type of lens, the market isn’t that big and therefore there’s not that many investments you can make in companies.

“Is there enough deal flow to effectively say that you can build the Silicon Valley of mining tech here?

“Maybe there’s 50 opportunities here; maybe 300 in Australia that are world class. Is that enough?

“Silicon Valley has thousands of opportunities with inventive people and connections to keep that type of deal flow moving and innovation moving.

“I don’t think we have that momentum here.

“The collaboration, the connection between industry, government, academia and the finance community, the education piece around risk understanding, and potential rewards, the investment momentum … These are structural things that need to be in place to build competitive advantage as a mining innovation ecosystem.

“They’re not in place now but can we start working and putting them in place?

“Yes, we can.”


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