What may once have been science fiction is now “business as usual” at three Rio Tinto iron ore mines. The Group’s Yandicoogina, Hope Downs 4 and Nammuldi mines are the first in the world to move all of their iron ore using fully automated, driverless haulage trucks.

Rio Tinto first introduced the Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) at its iron ore operations eight years ago as part of its Mine of the FutureTM programme and is now the world’s largest owner and operator of autonomous trucks. The Group has 71 AHS trucks across three Pilbara iron ore mines, moving about 20 per cent of the operations’ material.

Rio Tinto was one of the first in the industry to adopt automation, and it is visible across many aspects of its Pilbara operations. In addition to the AHS trucks, the Group’s Iron Ore business operates seven fully Autonomous Drill Systems (ADS) to drill production blast holes, and drones are being trialled to measure stockpiles and assist with environmental and maintenance activities. Some 1,500 kilometres away, the Perth Operations Centre acts as the system’s “nerve centre”. Here, the centre’s team of around 400 people monitors the business’s entire Pilbara operations in real time – right down to every truck.

Four technologies you’ll see in
copper mines of the future

Four technologies you’ll see
in copper mines of the future

It’s a 15-minute elevator ride almost two kilometres down Resolution Copper’s “No.10” mine shaft in Arizona, US. At these depths, temperatures can reach nearly 80°C.

It’s a 15-minute elevator ride almost two kilometres down Resolution Copper’s “No.10” mine shaft in Arizona, US. At these depths, temperatures can reach nearly 80°C.

And while it isn’t the world’s deepest mine, the project – which is currently undergoing approvals – offers a glimpse into the future of copper mining. As high-grade copper deposits become rarer, miners must venture ever-deeper, in inhospitable conditions, to access the metal.

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Michael Gollschewski, managing director of Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mines, says technology has transformed productivity at the iron ore operations and helped the business ride out the highs and lows of the cycle. This early adoption of technology has played a key role in positioning Rio Tinto as the lowest cost iron ore producer in the Pilbara.

“Our first mover advantage from developing our Operations Centre in Perth and implementing autonomous technology has been instrumental to our continued success,” Michael told an industry conference in March.

“Tied in with the other productivity improvements we have made, this technology is game changing.”

This technology is game changing

Michael Gollschewski, managing director, Pilbara mines

Safety, productivity and cost benefits

Results over the past eight years show the Group’s investment in automation has paid off, delivering improvements across safety and productivity, and reducing maintenance costs.

“Autonomous trucks reduce employee exposure to hazards and risks associated with operating heavy equipment, such as fatigue-related incidents, sprains and other soft tissue injuries, and exposure to noise and dust,” says Yandicoogina mining operations manager Josh Bennett.

And while human drivers require regular breaks, the AHS trucks can run almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, stopping only for refuelling and maintenance. Since 2008, the autonomous fleet has outperformed the manned fleet by an average of 14 per cent, and reduced load and haul operating costs by up to 13 per cent.

“There are obvious capital savings, in terms of setting up camps and flying people to site, and there are fewer people so there is less operating cost,” Josh says.

How does AHS work?

How does AHS work?

GPS technology – similar to that used in car navigation systems – is central to Rio Tinto’s Autonomous Haulage System (AHS).

GPS technology – similar to that used in car navigation systems – is central to Rio Tinto’s Autonomous Haulage System (AHS).

The AHS trucks are specially built with advanced computers that perform the normal tasks associated with driving a vehicle, such as starting the engine, accelerating and braking. The computers then respond to GPS directions, supervised remotely by operators, to ensure greater operational safety.

Rio Tinto’s mining operations manager at Yandicoogina, Josh Bennett, explains: “What we have done is map out our entire mine and put that into a system, and the system then works out how to manoeuvre the trucks through the mine.”

The trucks are programmed to transport loads as efficiently as possible, and are fitted with proximity detection and collision avoidance systems to identify and avoid hazards.

Image: Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore operations, Pilbara, Western Australia.

At Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine, the world’s first fully Autonomous Drilling Systems have drilled more than 2.6 million metres since they were introduced in 2009. A key advantage of ADS is in removing drill operators from the mine pit, as well as reducing workers’ exposure to dust, noise and vibration. From a productivity perspective, the autonomous drills have resulted in ten per cent less downtime compared with manned drills due to fewer interruptions, such as shift changes.

The way of the future

Rio Tinto plans to extend its AHS fleet to other viable Pilbara mines in the future, and continues to review and test new technology, evaluating the cost against potential returns.

Redefining the relationship between
humans and machines

Redefining the
relationship between
humans and machines

While the introduction of automation has seen a reduction in some traditional mining operational roles, it has also created new ones – from pit patrollers who help to manage the trucks in the field, to technical specialists who maintain the systems.

While the introduction of automation has seen a reduction in some traditional mining operational roles, it has also created new ones – from pit patrollers who help to manage the trucks in the field, to technical specialists who maintain the systems.

“As we redefine the relationship between person and machine, we also need to create a future workforce quite different than the one we have had previously,” says Andrew Harding, Rio Tinto’s chief executive, Iron Ore.

“Some core skills are still required, but with new automation technologies we need to apply them in new and different ways to deliver across our operations. For example, there will be a shift to a new form of highly skilled personnel at the core of our business, often with statistical reasoning as a strong suit.”

Andrew says humans will continue to play an important role in the day-to-day running of the Pilbara operations.

“Despite the extraordinary advances in technology, for tasks that are more complex and require a high level of problem solving, we need a human touch,” Andrew said.

Image: The Perth Operations Centre acts as the system’s “nerve centre”; the team monitors the business’s entire Pilbara operations in real time.