What in the world do mining and rocket science have in common?
Funny you should ask
Let's start with robots.
If you're a sucker for sci-fi, or even if you're not, you’ll know that remotely operated equipment like rovers are pretty handy for exploring far-off places like Mars or the moon. In fact, NASA has been using remotely operated rovers to explore the Red Planet since the late nineties.
At Rio Tinto, we love our robots too (ours are nice – more C3PO than The Terminator). In fact, we run one of the world's largest robots – a 1,700km railway in Western Australia that runs on artificial intelligence, safely and efficiently moving iron ore from 16 of our mines to our four shipping terminals. About a quarter of our fleet of giant trucks is already autonomous, and we're planning to expand it in the near future.
And at our Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, in the United States, we're using remotely operated land rovers and drones to do risky jobs – like checking high walls in open pits and parts inside big machinery. We like to call them our little superheroes.
We use technology pioneered by NASA.
At Gudai-Darri (Koodaideri), our planned intelligent mine, we’ll use a "digital twin" to help us be more efficient. Pioneered by NASA, digital twins are virtual models of a physical environment – like a space station – that let you quickly test different situations. NASA designs and tests all new equipment virtually before they build it and send it into space.
In the same way, at Gudai-Darri we’re building digital twins of processing plants. These twins combine data from actual processing plants with historical information – about things like design and production – to improve the way the plants are designed and run. Whether we're in the office or out in the field, we'll always have this information at our fingertips. A major plus to this is it lets us safely test ways to increase production without breaking parts or disrupting operations. An engineer's dream!
We have mission control centres.
Our operations centres at Perth and Weipa in Australia and the Saguenay in Canada are a lot like space mission control centres. The teams work around the clock 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, they help chart the course of our business – from finding the best way to get ore from the ground to improving the way we make aluminium. Our Perth centre is also mission control for our fleet of autonomous trucks, which drive around mines 1,500km away. They even drill blast holes and crush rocks using gaming consoles. Beam us up (to the Pilbara), Scotty!
We love data.
NASA missions gather hundreds of terabytes of data every hour, which is used for everything from predicting weather on Earth to searching for distant galaxies. To put that into perspective: NASA says one terabyte is equivalent to information printed on 50,000 trees worth of paper.
Making sense of large amounts of complex information keeps us pretty busy too. Satellites stream oceans of data telling us everything from the position of a truck to where our next discovery might be. It's about 100 years worth of analysis if you were using normal methods (yes, you read that right). But with some clever coding our data science team got that down to just 11 hours. Now that's progress!
We've built computer systems that analyse data and make decisions in microseconds. An ore crusher at an iron ore processing plant can talk to trucks and let them know when it needs more ore. And at our bauxite mine in Weipa, special mathematical software helps our port schedulers manage hundreds of ships a year. Using data in these ways helps us minimise downtime, reduce energy use and cut our operating costs. What's not to love?
And we love science too.
Getting metals and minerals from as deep as 1.2km underground, safely and responsibly, uses the same basic skills that traveling to outer space does: science, technology, engineering and maths – and a whole lot of pioneering spirit too. These skills are also at the heart of what we do. Our engineers need to know as much about mining data as mining iron ore, bauxite or copper. And our mechanics often check their tablets before they do just about anything else.
So, even though we have our feet firmly planted on the ground, we're always looking toward the horizon – and beyond. Because that's how you pioneer progress.