Driverless AutoHaul train, Pilbara

Automation

Pioneering Automation and Robotics in Mining

We harness new and emerging technologies to make our operations more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. And we do this all the way through the mining life cycle: as we explore, design, build, operate and close our assets.

Automation has been part of our business for more than a decade, and helps us run safer, more efficient and low cost operations. We are removing driver error and improving safety by increasing the automation of trucks, drills and trains.

Our Iron Ore business operates the world’s first fully autonomous, heavy-haul long-distance railway system – AutoHaul™ – which has so far travelled more than 7 million kilometres.

Across many of our operations, we are using remotely operated land rovers and drones to do risky jobs and keep our people safe – like checking high walls in open pits and parts inside big machinery.

Gavin Gillett, Drone Pilot

Gavin Gillett

From Crane Operator to Drone Pilot
I was a crane operator only eight months ago, but now I work in remote-operated vehicles.

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I'm actually third-generation Rio Tinto. Grandad was here for 27 years and Dad was here for 19.

I came back a few years ago – back home I guess – and honestly, I have been loving it. The attitude change I have seen within the business towards a more pioneering, risk-taking mindset has been massive. Because for me, I felt like I was kind of doing this thing already outside of work.

A lot of the work I do now for the business were hobbies of mine, whether it was YouTube, photography, drones, even 3D modelling. I was a crane operator only eight months ago, but now I work in remote-operated vehicles. I was pretty concerned about getting stuck in mining and never leaving again. But now I'm really loving it. I wish I could go back and tell myself to worry less about the future of mining because it has got an incredible future with a really diverse range of roles. It's not just about breaking rocks anymore."

  • Autonomous Trucks
  • Autonomous Trains
  • Autonomous Drills & Charge Trucks
  • Operations Centres
  • Drones & Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)
  • Robotic Process Automations

Autonomous Trucks

We run more than 130 autonomous trucks, part of our Autonomous Haulage System, across our Iron Ore operations. The trucks are operated by a supervisory system and a central controller, rather than a driver. The system uses pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections and knows actual locations, speeds and directions of all vehicles at all times.

In 2018, each truck was estimated to have operated on average 700 hours more than conventional haul trucks, with 15% lower costs – delivering clear productivity benefits. They also take truck operators out of harm’s way, reducing the risks associated with working around heavy machinery.

Autonomous Trains

AutoHaul™ is the world’s first heavy-haul, long-distance autonomous rail operation, which transports iron ore to Rio Tinto's port facilities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Our network includes about 200 locomotives on more than 1,700 kilometres of track in the Pilbara.

AutoHaul™ improves safety by reducing risk at level crossings and through its automated responses to speed restrictions and alarms. It also eliminates the need to transport drivers to and from trains mid-journey saving almost 1.5 million kilometres of road travel each year – a safety risk. And it delivers productivity and environmental benefits by using information about the train and rail network topography to calculate and deliver a safe, consistent driving strategy.

Autonomous Drills & Charge Trucks

We operate the largest autonomous drilling fleet in the world. We use 26 autonomous drills to safely and accurately drill blast-holes from a remote location. An operator, located at our operations centre, can plan activities for each drill for an entire shift remotely, rather than doing the work manually on-site. We have also introduced smart charge trucks, which automate the process of pumping explosives into drill holes. The trucks use computer systems and data analytics to determine the right amount of explosives to use for each drill hole, helping to reduce wastage and improve the effectiveness of the blast.

Operations Centres

Our operations centres in Perth and Brisbane in Australia, and the Saguenay region in Canada enable all our mines, ports and rail systems to be operated from a single location. The teams work in rooms filled with screens that show the entire operation in action – in real-time. Using tools like predictive maths, clever computer code and powerful software, our operations centres help us identify opportunities for improvements and efficiencies – from finding the best way to get ore from the ground to improving the way we make products.

Drones & Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)

We use drones and ROVs for real-time 3D mapping and equipment inspections, as well as checking slopes, crests and walls for safety risks like cracks and signs of rock movement.

One of the biggest benefits of our drones is safety. There are some jobs where it is better for drones to do it rather than people – for example high wall mapping. By using drones, we are removing people from harm’s way.

We are also using drones fitted with thermal diagnostic capability to identify equipment problems from the air. We can identify high friction rates on equipment in real time and notify the maintenance teams so the issues can be addressed.

Employees carrying drone

Team pioneers a new use for drones

Oyu Tolgoi
The Drill and Blast team at our Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine in Mongolia are using drones to help them in the “blast clearance” process.

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The team's job is to drill holes in a set pattern, fill them with explosives, and then set off the blast to break the ore so that it can be extracted. Blast clearance is an important check, but the process used to involve the team physically going to the blasted site to carry out the inspection, where they may have been exposed to risks from unstable or loose rock, fumes, or from walking on uneven surfaces. During this inspection, which typically took 45 minutes, operations within 500 metres are shut down, meaning potential production was also lost.

This new use of drones helps keep our team safe and, for every blast, the drones are now saving them around 15 minutes.

Robotic Process Automations

Bots come in all shapes and sizes, and are commonplace in our everyday work. Bots are what we call our robotic process automations (RPA), and they are already supporting our Iron Ore and Aluminium product groups and other support functions.

Our Information Systems & Technology team are making our jobs easier by developing and implementing this technology behind the scenes. Bots complete repetitive tasks for us like opening emails and attachments, data entry, moving files, filling in forms and making calculations.

At our Hope Downs 1 mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia, we developed an RPA responsible for logging the site’s maintenance order requests. The bot is now saving our maintainers significant time each shift, and simplifying the shift handover process. There are bots doing scheduling, ordering, learning and development, maintenance, finance, marine, and core services in Iron Ore. More bots are in, or about to be in development, helping to make our jobs easier and more efficient.

  • Autonomous vehicle in the Pilbara
    Helping Skill the Workforce of the Future
    In Western Australia, where automation may have a disruptive impact on our communities, we launched a partnership with the government of Western Australia and South Metropolitan TAFE (Technical and Further Education) to develop the first nationally recognised courses in automation. This partnership aims to train and certify people in new skills, making them easily transferable – so that people can follow opportunity wherever they find it.
  • Mark the robot at Kennecott
    Mark the Robot: Our Little Superhero
    Deep inside our Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, western United States, we use a remote operated vehicle team – including drones and other equipment – to help keep people safe and save the business money. The newest team member is a robot named Mark II, designed and built by our chief drone pilot, Matt Key, using an over-the-counter rock crawler and a 3D printer. Matt’s ingenuity meant Mark II cost a mere $10,000 to build, a fraction of the $100,000 it could have cost to buy a similar robot. Mark II squeezes into small spaces and manoeuvres over tough terrain to test oxygen levels and collect soil and water samples.