Nathalie Risso, Ph.D., Electrical and Computer Engineering
Assistant Professor at UArizona Department of Mining and Geological Engineering Director of the UArizona Mine Automation and Autonomous Systems Lab
Affiliate Professor with the UArizona School of Mining & Mineral Resources
Nathalie Risso’s role as Director of the UArizona Mine Automation and Autonomous Systems Lab is a technology dream come true. It has been a lifetime in the making for the engineer and her predecessors.
“I was recently at a conference for Women of Color and I heard something I really liked. They used the phrase: ‘I am the wildest dream of my ancestors.’ My family is originally from Chile and mining is really important in Chile. My grandparents and parents are very hardworking people; my mom was the first person of her family to graduate from college. Since I was fortunate enough to complete my education, my family is my inspiration to go further. I want to use science and technology to improve society and hope that everything I do will help to make people’s lives better,” said Risso, who received a B.S. in Electronics Engineering from the University of Concepcion, Chile. She attained her M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from UArizona, where she defended a dissertation on “Robust Model Predictive Control for Cyber-Physical Systems”.
Risso is bringing her dreams to fruition with collaborations and research into autonomous products that utilize machine learning for geological applications; a safety app that will allow people to identify hazards in underground operations; and tools that teach students about the use of autonomous systems in mining—from drones and autonomous haul trucks to drills, scoops and other equipment.
The autonomous and semi-autonomous tools, which are being increasingly implemented in mines around the globe, offer numerous benefits for the industry. The rapidly-expanding technology can help reduce emissions, improve safety and increase financial and operational productivity. The applications also extend beyond Earth into deep space exploration and mining.
“When we send a rover to Mars, it explores terrain in the same way we explore terrain when we are looking for copper or other minerals. Many principles in mining are coming together with autonomous technology for exploration of other planets, the moon and asteroids,” said Risso, who is currently pursuing funding with NASA.
It is a natural progression for someone who was always determined to shoot for the stars, both literally and figuratively.
“When I was a kid, my father used to tell me a lot of science fiction stories—tales about space exploration, robots and spaceships. I thought that was so cool, and that led to me become an engineer. In Chile, the largest copper producer in the world, our mining policy states: “Mining is an engine for innovation”. I believe this is entirely true, as it highlights to role of mining in the creation of human resources and innovation. In the end, when we extract resources, we are learning and creating new technology, and it was natural for me to mix the two,” said Risso.
She encourages students in every course of study to consider exploring the innovative new technologies that are increasingly vital as the demand for minerals and energy continues to grow. She emphasizes that opportunities for women in mining also abound in the future.
“Diverse workforces are a must when you are seeking to innovate. They allow us to look at problems from different perspectives and to think outside the box to create new solutions. The mining industry has several opportunities for all people to contribute, as their input is key to achieve true sustainable development”
“Everything we do at the university and everything we do with the mining industry is a little contribution into creating things for the benefit of humanity,” Risso said.