In the near future the demand for resources only rises due to both a ever growing population, energy and resource crises, and rampant consumerism. Peak oil has been reached, scarce resources like platinum, silver, and other rare metals have been depleted on the surface, and the world is beginning to feel the more drastic effects of climate change such as mass extinctions of animals and strains of crops. In this rather bleak period the major mining companies looked to the seas to solve the mineral requirements of earth. While mining the seas isn't a easy affair the ocean's mineral wealth is virtually untapped.

However instead of using drones to mine both ores and the methane ice the big companies used mainly human labor (with drone assistance), but why? What benefit would human laborers in deep sea rigs have over a aquatic drone?


The population is fed mainly by cultured meat and indoor+vertical farming hence why the population is expanding even though the climate looks bleak.

Asteroid mining isn't considered a good alternative for earth due to the transportation of the goods back to earth. However if necessary the industry does exist (mainly for the initial space colonies)

The mines would be accessed by either mining ships or for the larger mines maglev trains connected to large underwater bases (with the tunnels dug under the ocean's surface)

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    $\begingroup$ You haven't explained what exactly activities you want humans to perform at great depths. I feel that you have a wrong impression of what "deep sea mining" means; hint: it does not involve digging tunnels. The bottom of the ocean is fundamentally different from the continental crust we see on land. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 29, 2019 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP the tunnels are for the trains to get the workers to the mining sites. Last time I read up on deep sea mining it seemed familiar to fracking and then a line bucket method. I think the human laborers could be useful in actually mining the material and then sending down the line to their facility/ship $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2019 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ (Not enough for an answer, but) Consider: deep diving is complicated; humans are flimsy meat bags and the challenge to us is much harder than to robots. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_diving $\endgroup$
    – ANeves
    Mar 29, 2019 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ Humans are cheap and disposable $\endgroup$
    – 12Me21
    Mar 29, 2019 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ You'd hear about a leak pretty quick. If a competitor dispatched your humans, they might get in trouble. Human presence is traditionally a requirement to maintain a claim. $\endgroup$
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 30, 2019 at 1:33

10 Answers 10


Corporations: It's all about the bottom line!

According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of raising a child from birth through age 17 is \$233,610. If that made your heart skip a beat, take a deep breath before you read on. Incorporating inflation costs, it will be more like \$284,570. ... That \$284,570 average doesn’t include the cost of college education, arguably one of the biggest expenses a parent will face. (Source)

And since manual labor doesn't need a college education (just vocational training, at best), we can use that number. But, let's round it off for incidental expenses: $300,000.

  • If your drones cost more than $300,000, it's cheaper to use humans.

  • Humans breed like rabbits, drones don't. If you can crank 1,000 humans through Bob's House of Undersea Vocational Training in the time it takes you to build 10 drones, you use humans.

  • Lawsuits are inconvenient, but you'd be surprised how often wrongful-death suits are settled out of court (then ignored). If the average loss to wrongful-death lawsuits per-year is less than the cost of, say, 10% of the manufacturing cost of drones each year, you use humans.

  • Humans need hamburgers and are self-healing. Drones need fuel and cost a boatload to repair. Need I say more?

Obviously, this ignores a lot of details (like whether or not the drone can do 100X the work a human can. Luddites to the rescue!). But the bottom line will always drive some of the worst decisions ever made by corporations.

  • $\begingroup$ But you would need a few humans to do the job of one drone, so your first bullet should be "if your drones cost more than [some multiple of 300,000]..." $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2019 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ I did plan all sorts of anti-automation luddites to spice things up. Maybe they've successfully lobbied for "protection" against automation. Also the drones would probably be way more expensive then 300,000 so that works out. $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2019 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Aethenosity, while that's most likely true, it's not established in the context of the OP's question. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 29, 2019 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ In order to operate in a deep-sea environment, humans need some very expensive life-support equipment. Sure, a \$300k human is cheaper than a \$5m drone, but a \$300k human wearing \$10m of armored life-support system is far more expensive. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark point well taken! But we're missing data to assume that need. A deep-sea diving suit can be had for a couple of thousand bucks. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:38

What benefits would be gained by using human laborers instead of drones in deep sea mining?

tl;dr: None.

Long answer:

First let's address several assumptions in your question.

demand for resources only rises due to both a ever growing population

Not necessarily. The precious metals platinum and palladium are commonly used in catalytic converters in cars. Once you move to electric cars, demand will decrease.

scarce resources like platinum, silver, and other rare metals have been depleted on the surface

No. I refer you to this answer from Chemistry SE:

Will we ever run out of gold, silver, copper and other important conductors?

mine...the methane ice

Why? What do you need methane for? It's a nuisance. Even if you do need it, get it from landfills. Way easier.

Asteroid mining isn't considered a good alternative for earth due to the transportation of the goods back to earth. However if necessary the industry does exist (mainly for the initial space colonies)

Don't even get me started about this. Asteroid mining is a sci-fi fantasy which is nowhere even close to feasible or economical in the real world. I've commented on this on several answers and questions here in the past. If interested, finding these comments is left as an exercise for the reader.

The mines would be accessed by either mining ships or for the larger mines maglev trains connected to large underwater bases (with the tunnels dug under the ocean's surface)

and this one from one of the answers

Humans are smaller and can fit into tighter spaces and caves to detect the presence of rare minerals.

Deep sea mineralisation occurs on the sea bed or very close to it, within centimetres. There are no tunnels or holes to dig. Current deep sea exploration programs are targeting mineral deposits that are literally just sitting there waiting for us to pick them up.

Now, to why humans will be very bad for this:

  1. There is a reason why the deposits are called deep sea deposits. Because they are deep. Like, really deep. Four kilometres deep on average. Developing a submersible that can withhold the immense pressures encountered at these depths is expensive. While there were submersibles that reached deeper depths (up to 12 km), these were specially designed vehicles. Doing this on an industrial scale is simply too expensive. On the other hand, drones don't care about pressure (mostly).

One of the answers commented that:

You could also make humans generally better at identifying mineral veins or using complex tools than drones can (a specialist drone won't have all the tools required to do everything, especially if its meant to be good and cost effective at doing something).

This is not correct. If you've ever actually seen the deep sea deposits, they look pretty much like the mud around them. The human eye cannot distinguish the good stuff from gangue. On the other hand, drones can be equipped with instruments such as Raman spectrometers, pXRFs, IR wavelength spectrometers and a variety of other instruments that will be much better than humans in finding the stuff.

We can learn from today's mining industry. It is gradually becoming more automated with robots. And this is happening in subaerial mines, which are relatively simple to operate. There is absolutely no reason to introduce humans to extreme environments for mining, especially when we already have the technology to do this without humans.

Finally, if interested, the scientific-yet-not-too-technical magazine Elements published a series of articles on deep sea mining in their October 2018 issue. It is mostly paywalled (unfortunately) but shouldn't be too hard to find the full versions of the articles online. Alternatively, you can read the abstracts which are free. This is highly recommended reading allowing some understanding of deep sea mining as we understand it today, written by people who know what they're talking about.

  • $\begingroup$ Platinum is also used in electronics. I know lots of rare metals are, although usually in token amounts, but still that adds up quick. I'll try and find you a link, but Japan is investing in methane ice as we speak. $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2019 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, platinum has many uses. But the most abundant application is catalytic converters. It's all about supply and demand. And Japan is investing in many deep sea mining endeavours (e.g. rare earths), that myself and my colleagues in the minerals industry aren't quite sure why. Methane can be easily and abundantly obtained from landfills and cattle farms (and I'm being dead serious about this). @CelestialDragonEmperor $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 29, 2019 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ @CelestialDragonEmperor I strongly recommend attempting to get a hold of the Elements magazine issue I refer to in the last paragraph. It will give you a good overview of what is being mined, how it is being mined, etc etc etc. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 29, 2019 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like interesting part about worldbuilding is to figure out a situation in which there would be a benefit, even if rejecting the premise seems like the "right" response. $\endgroup$
    – Misha R
    Mar 29, 2019 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @user71659 (1) it was an example, not a prediction (2) we did not run out of tungsten reserves. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 29, 2019 at 19:16

The mining companies are being subsidized

Drones would have been better value for money, but the government subsidizes human labor. This is done to keep the population (especially the men) occupied and also safely locked away, not giving them a chance to sit around talking rebellion.

This is also the reason space mining is not favored: there are too many places to run and hide once the tech for space colonization exists.


The simple fact for this to happen is that human labor and the associated costs will have to be cheaper than a fully automated drone and more profitable. You could spin this a couple of ways...

  1. Rare metals are extremely expensive and required for highly advanced tech. Its more profitable to sell off the minerals you gather than it is to buy a drone with a highly complex computational brain when a human can basically become the operator and only requires food, water and some money. Your human controls the system so you don't need an expensive computer to do so.

  2. Humans are smaller and can fit into tighter spaces and caves to detect the presence of rare minerals. Once a humans has identified a vein you can accurately extract it with the drones and reduce the amount of waste material you mine up. You could also make humans generally better at identifying mineral veins or using complex tools than drones can (a specialist drone won't have all the tools required to do everything, especially if its meant to be good and cost effective at doing something).

  3. Cost of fuel is too high. You simply suit up a human, give them a cable to come back with and some oxygen, a couple of glow sticks and a pickaxe and drop them into the depths. Powered by only the food in their stomach and the desire to see light again ( aka we won't pull you up until you find something) humans won't require you to waste large amounts of precious fuel to operate.


In dangerous places (like outer space, deep sea etc) the only reason to use people instead robots is that in general people are more flexible and much universal than single robot.

But it's only one side. Human flexibility reduces in deep sea because of great pressure. Withstand to such pressure much harder that operating in outer space. People should use heavy 'deep' suits even in not-really-deep sea. Even in such deep human couldn't operate by hand but only by specialized instrument integrated with suite. But.. you could give this instrument to a robot and direct it remotely! (Robots don't need air and food and it's not a problem to lost some)

Here we could say that remote manipulation requires some reliable communication, calculate costs and go deeper in rabbit hole. But it's out of scope.

So if you really want to get people mining in deep sea in your world, you have to introduce intermediate bases where people would live and operate nearby drones and do something special which is unreasonable to do on surface. [Repairing drones is an example] So your question could be reduced to another one: What benefits to use intermediate inhabited bases?
Some reasons have been already described (communication and repairing on-site is cheaper). If you look at space programs like ISS or lunar base you probably could add more like

  • New technologies
  • Proof of national superiority
  • Communication with intelligent aliens deep-sea creatures
  • Universe exploring and understanding
  • Factories which produce not a raw resource but goods with high added value [like engines instead of raw steel]. And those factories couldn't be employed without human in your world. [Because in near future it (probably) will be possible in our world]

or invent something own. Or ask new question on this site ;-)


If you can tolerate some suspension of disbelief, this could still be plausible.


  • Your drones cannot be reliably remote-controlled at great depths?
  • Your society needs a reason to keep the growth of the lower classes in check? Compulsory military/mining service fulfills this purpose.
  • Drones are simply too expensive? Surely their construction consumes a disproportionate amount of the rare minerals they exist to mine?
  • Espionage/sabotage-- foreign corporations hijack/destroy each others' drones? Unless you intend on fully automating undersea warfare and wasting what's left of the resources having robots fling torpedoes at each other, humans are more expendable.
  • Putting people to work keeps them out of trouble. You can automate all unskilled labor, but now you have a bunch of bored/desperate people surface-side. Crime increases under these conditions.
  • $\begingroup$ Drones are cheap af. A single drone can mine many ounces of gold, but they’re not made out of many ounces of gold. Good answer otherwise. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 29, 2019 at 19:31

I agree with much of what Shadowzee has to say about profitability. Modern corporations operate with one thing in mind. Increasing profits for shareholders. Human labor can be VERY inexpensive. It can be the largest cost a business might incur. However there was something Shadowzee didn't mention I don't think. If you look at history governments and business have had little concern with the civil rights of human labor. There are numerous examples. Improved quality of life for working class people is only a fairly recent development. And quite frankly increases in inequality in this country suggest to me that that particular trend has the potential to reverse itself.

What kind of future are you envisioning? A good one...A dark one? If you can think of a scenario which involves coerced unskilled labor you might be able to come up with something along the lines of what I am thinking i.e. some corporate entity viewing the trade-off between expendable low cost unskilled labor and expensive automation that requires AI and coming up with a "unique and inexpensive compromise" - automated human beings with implanted programmable chips to perform the labor of the machines.

There are many people who see the combination of human and machine as a natural part of human evolution (e.g Elon Musk, Ray Kurweil). Corporations might see this as highly beneficial approach to both labor problems, automation problems and what happens if you don't have wage slaves earning money to buy the stuff they sell.

Can't speak to mining the deep sea because I would think this is pretty difficult work and would probably require highly skilled labor rather than unskilled labor. But what about programmable chips to increase the laborer's skill set.

I could see a future where you could have a labor pool that just needs to eat and might allow themselves to subjected to it. Or forced labor from criminal and political dissident populations.

Sorry...that is a pretty dark scenario but mining industries don't treat their workers very well as a general rule.

  • $\begingroup$ In western societies, the mining industry is one of the best sectors to be employed in. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 29, 2019 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ In western societies ...well maybe. And that certainly depends on the country and the company. I wouldn't want to work Murray mining. That company was or is currently being sue for negligence associated with the death of miners. I wouldn't work for them as a miner for sure. Well I wouldn't work for them at all but if I had to it wouldn't be in the mines. And in Latin America the mining industry is a notorious violator of civil rights particularly of indigenous peoples and environmental laws. In the DNC for example miners work basically as slave labor to get us cobalt for cell phone batteries. $\endgroup$
    – KodiakMFL
    Mar 31, 2019 at 17:39

Check out Peter Watts' Rifters trilogy for some ideas. He needs to justify a very similar situation, where workers are sent to maintain geothermal power-plants deep under water.

In short, networked systems are no longer reliable. The internet as we know it no longer exists. It's been overrun by a rapidly shifting ecosystem of self-replicating viruses and military grade AIs, developed and deployed by nation-states and corporations vying for control. The arms race between self-modifying viruses and anti-viruses has become so extreme that any data sent via the web is more likely than not to be hijacked, altered, or deleted completely. In order to operate with any degree of reliability, machines need to be air-gapped and completely autonomous.

People are expendable; the corporations do the math, and decide that habitation and life-support are cheaper than investing in machines smart enough to reliably do the job.


Gimelist showed quite convincingly why humans are not needed in the Deep. Depending on your reason for wanting them down there, you might be able to introduce them to the Not So Deep.

If the Climate is still in the throes of change, using the surface of the ocean might actually be more expensive than being 30-80m below (ice, storms). So you might have large submerged (pre)processing facilities run by humans, and catered-to by the drones in the Deep. Nice claustrophobic setting, actually within (economic) technical reach.


That depends on how much communications the drones require. Radio basically doesn't work underwater, so you can't use it teleoperate something at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, for everyone reaching for the comment button to mention ELF, let's just get it on the table:


Electromagnetic waves in the ELF and SLF frequency ranges (3–300 Hz) can penetrate seawater to depths of hundreds of meters...

  1. "Hundreds of meters" doesn't make it to the bottom.
  2. That 3-300Hz bit means that the entire, world-encompassing band, has about 300Hz of bandwidth. WiFi has a bandwidth of about 22MHz, or about 73,333 times larger. And you've only got to share it within folks of a couple hundred meters of you.

So plopping some folks on the bottom of the ocean gives you some local human intelligence, without having to maintain a umbilical cord from the bottom of the ocean to the top. If the mining installations lasted for extended periods of time, it might be worth running fiber to them from the coastline, but if they had to roam, that'd be less helpful.

Over shorter distances, you'd have a chance of making things like messenger drones, cables, acoustics, or maybe even light transmit data to the drones.


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