Giant robots have long been the stuff of children's fantasies and Hollywood blockbusters; mega machines, such as Transformers, which watch over and protect humankind.

Such futuristic imaginings edged closer to reality in July 2018 when Rio Tinto achieved a significant milestone with the first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train in the Pilbara in Western Australia.

The autonomous train, consisting of three locomotives and carrying around 28,000 tonnes of iron ore, travelled over 280 kilometres from Rio Tinto's mining operations in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert. It was monitored remotely by operators from Rio Tinto's Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500 kilometres away.

The AutoHaul™ team at the Operations Centre in Perth has been honing the technology and running thousands of hours of tests. The AutoHaul™ project is expected to be fully operational later this year, making it the world's first fully autonomous, long distance, heavy-haul rail network..

Rio Tinto has achieved a significant milestone with the first iron ore autonomous train delivery in the Pilbara, Western Australia

Lido Costa, principal engineer on the AutoHaul™ project, says the trains are indeed giant autonomous robots because once they are set on their course, they make all the decisions.

"There is a train controller at the Operations Centre in Perth (1,500 kilometres from the Pilbara) who sets the route. But once it's running the on-board computers and the computers at the Operations Centre take over and it makes its own decisions," says Lido.

"The network of computers makes sure the train keeps to the speed limit, makes sure it doesn't run into other trains or other trains don't run into it, makes sure there's nothing obstructing the level crossings," explains Lido.

"And there are a whole lot of other devices in place to protect people and equipment. For instance, if one of the wheels has a fault, the train will be bought to a stop. Or if one of the couplers in the train is broken, the system will pick it up and stop the train."

The AutoHaul™ train in action The AutoHaul™ train in action
The AutoHaul™ train in action

2.4km

length of trains

Safer, more productive journeys

The main advantages to spring from the shift from manually operated trains to a fully autonomous system is safety and productivity.

In a manual system, every time one driver ends their shift and another comes on board, the train needs to stop. On a typical journey a train will stop three times, adding more than an hour to the journey. The trains that move iron ore from the mines to the port for shipping are 2.4 kilometres long.

"The time-saving benefit is enormous because the train network is a core part of the mining operation. If we can prevent those stoppages, we can keep the network ticking over, allowing more ore to be transported to the ports and shipped off more efficiently," says Lido.

"The other major benefit is safety," he continues. "We are removing the need to transport drivers 1.5 million kilometres each year to and from trains as they change their shift. This high-risk activity is something that driverless trains will largely reduce."

Lido has been involved in train technology for more than four decades. He was part of the team that built the high-speed train linking Madrid and Seville in the 1990s, worked on the underground network in Frankfurt, and was the chief engineer on the Perth to Mandurah rail line.

Implementing driverless trains is a whole other level of satisfaction for Lido. "This is by far the most exciting project I've ever worked on from the perspective of innovation and world-first technology. It is the highlight of my career."


Our AutoHaul™ train is the largest robot in the world