Will robots build the 'third pillar' of Saudi's economy?
Ma'aden's could become key test-bed for OffWorld's industrial swarm robots
Classic science fiction writers like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov first started to popularise the idea of mining for minerals on other planets. Aware that our resources on earth are finite, they reasoned that, in the future, man would have to look to space to find precious minerals. Arthur C. Clarke first refers to industrial mining on a massive scale in his 1951 novel 'The Sands of Mars', where all the planet's valuable minerals could be stripped by robots within a matter of a few years.
In the next century OffWorld was born, a developer of rugged, autonomous industrial robots with a vision to help the human race explore, mine and build on other planets. Now, OffWorld has begun selling autonomous industrial mining robots in countries around the world for deployments beginning 2024. This month, the Saudi state-owned mining giant Ma'aden signed up to become one of OffWorld's first terrestrial customers.
Via a memorandum of understanding signed last week, the pioneer in AI-powered industrial mining systems and Ma'aden will explore how 'Swarm Robotic Mining' could be deployed to mine minerals in Saudi Arabia.
Ma’aden is today the largest multi-commodity mining and metals company in the Middle East with revenues of $7.12 billion in 2021. Operating 17 mines and sites it employs some 6,000 employees and extracts phosphate, aluminum, gold, copper and other valuable minerals. Ma'aden recently embarked on a massive growth initiative to turn the mining industry into the third pillar of Saudi Arabia's economy.
Ma'aden is ready to take big strategic moves to acheive its goals. Earlier this month, Ma’aden disclosed that it had formed a number of joint ventures over the past few months including forming a new investment company with the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF). A long-term move, the new firm will invest in mining assets globally in order to secure strategic minerals for Saudi Arabia.
Another of the recent joint ventures saw Ma’aden invest $126.4 million to fund Ivanhoe Electric's U.S. projects and a new operation in Saudi to explore reserves of copper, gold, silver and 'electric metals'
Ma'aden is well-positioned to embrace the use of autonomous industrial robots and has a wide variety of digital programmes. The company made accelerating technology-adoption a top priority in 2018, when it launched its first company-wide digitisation programme with plans to adopt the latest technologies and transform into a data-driven organisation. Ma'aden is moving fast to integrate technology across its organisation and throughout its facilities and operations, leveraging AI, big data, Internet of Things (IoT), digital twins and other emerging technologies.
Among other things, Ma'aden already uses technology in some novel ways, including: 'smart helmets' for employees that allow real-time monitoring and smart sensors in industrial vehicles and equipment to monitor both operators and systems. Meanwhile, the mining giant uses AI systems to create predictive data models, identify mineral reserves and manage cybersecurity.
Ma'aden's deal with OffWorld promises the ability to conduct precision robotic mining for valuable metal and mineral ores underground. OffWorld's industrial swarming robots are built for surveying above ground and deep beneath it, performing precision excavation, and collecting, hauling, and processing material. The robots are designed to be user-friendly, rugged, autonomous and can work in squads around the clock. Hence, the developer claims, these swarm robots can dramatically increase the output from mines, more cost-efficiently than human-operated processes.
According to the robotics company, it has already secured multi-year contracts with top-tier mining companies around the world, and will be continuously developing and adapting a variety of robots to provide solutions within the mining industry and in others, such as construction, infrastructure, utilities, and space.
OffWorld's robots are able to operate in some of the harshest conditions on earth, from the extreme cold to searing heat. So, Saudi Arabia's environment, where the temperature can often reach 50 degrees centigrade in the shade during the summer, provides a useful testing ground for these machines.
Meanwhile, a successful partnership could - admittedly over a few years - help Ma'aden fast-track the growth of Saudi's mining sector, whilst supporting the Kingdom's goal of having net zero carbon emissions by the year 2060.
The third pillar of Saudi Arabia's economy, could indeed be built by robots.