Rio Tinto Breaks New Ground With Pioneering Self-Driving Technology

By | 31 March, 2015

Mining Giant’s “Mine of the Future” in Australia Integrates Truck, Train Automation

driverless trucks, self-driving trucks, sdv

Autonomous trucks at Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mine, Western Australia
Source: Financial Review, www.afr.com. Photographer: Christian Sprogoe

Say “iron mine” and chances are you don’t think hi-tech and sci-fi innovation, but even a brief look at Rio Tinto’s mining operations in Western Australia will change that perception right quick, mate.

Starting with a five-truck trial run in its West Angelas, Australia mine in 2010, the mining giant has gradually extended its driverless program to more than 57 trucks at four sites. Plans are to extend the self-driving program to a fleet of 150 of the Komatsu trucks.

Speaking at a global mining conference in London in January, Chief Executive Sam Walsh described Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future:

“We’ve got advanced robotics, remote-sensing and artificial intelligence. But most spectacularly, it’s operated from an operations centre 1500 kilometres away from the mines in Perth.

“That’s the equivalent of operating a mine in Poland from your seat here in London.”

Ahead of Google?

According to Walsh, Google and other autonomous vendors had better keep an eye on the competition:

“Automation has gone further and faster than we’d ever have imagined. Not only is it reducing costs and raising efficiency, it’s also improved our health, safety and environmental performance.

“You might have read about driverless cars? I tell you: we’re decades ahead of Google on autonomous cars.”

Trains and Trucks Working Together

The newest twist in Tinto’s pioneering automation efforts is the recently-completed AutoHaul automated railway link between Pilbara and the port of Dampier, a 300km run. This latest automation project will eventually deploy more than 40 autonomous trains at a cost of more than a half-billion US dollars.

Benefits include reduced labor costs and increased overall mining productivity, but the most import result is better capital utilization, according to Dr. Brian Fisher, director of the Canberra firm BA Economics:

“The goal is to take costs out of the system. But it is not about cutting labour costs — that is a minor part. It is more about making better use of a company’s capital equipment.”

Making the trains, trucks, port and other mining areas work together into an integrated program is important, though Fisher pointed out that not all tasks are amenable to full automation:

“Some things are harder to automate. For example, driving the big front-end loaders that load a haul truck in a pit is still best done by a person.”

Private Land, Public Benefit

One reason that a company like Rio Tinto can move ahead so quickly is because their use of self-driving trucks in on their private property. Except for the obvious concerns of worker safety, regulators need not apply.

It’s quite a different story to move onto the public roadways, but it’s clear to industry observers that Tinto’s early adoption of this technology will provide much-needed experience – and encouragement – to the Google’s, Baidu’s and BMW’s of the world as they move ahead with self-driving vehicles on the freeways.

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