Unmanned drone technology for mining trucks in Australia

The largest iron-ore mine in Australia will take a leap in efficiency starting next April: 10 automated trucks, one remote driver.

With demand from China and other steel-hungry industrializing economies rising, the massive trucks—programmed to haul ore and waste around the pit using the global positioning system—are part of a push by Rio Tinto PLC to to adopt automated technology to cut costs and ramp up production even in the face of a labor shortage.

Traveling precise routes around Yandicoogina mine and operating 24 hours a day, the trucks will be under the supervision of a single worker in a portable office at the mine, backed up by a control center in Perth that oversees all of the company’s 14 mines, as well as its rail lines and ports, in the distant Pilbara region of Australia’s northwest.

Rio Tinto, which last year said it didn’t have enough truck drivers, drillers or locomotive drivers, is alone among the major iron-ore producers in the Pilbara to adopt the experimental technology. But the Anglo-Australian company says it is confident the autonomous trucks, trains and drill rigs it is testing are creating efficiencies and helping it meet aggressive output targets.

Rio Tinto has been giving the automated trucks a trial at another mine, West Angelas, since late 2008, using five of them to haul waste. It said Wednesday it plans to double its fleet and deploy the trucks to Yandicoogina, where they will carry not just waste but the valuable ore.

“There’s nothing weirder than seeing one of these giant trucks with no driver in it,” said Karen Halbert, a spokeswoman for the company. “They even honk their horn before they back up.”

The trucks are built by Tokyo-based Komatsu Ltd., which has also supplied the vehicles to Corporación Nacional del Cobre for a copper mine in Chile. They stand close to seven meters tall and can carry more than 290,000 kilograms, driven by a 16- or 18-cylinder engine churning out about 3,500 horsepower.

“They won’t work for every mine or for every pit, but can add significant value as part of our expansion,” Sam Walsh, chief executive of the iron-ore business, told a business lunch in Melbourne last week.

From Perth, some 1,500 kilometers away, a team of about 400 supervisors synchronizes and coordinates the Pilbara mines as well Rio Tinto’s 14,000 kilometers of rail and three ports in the region. Like technicians overseeing Formula 1 cars during a race, they receive information from the trucks to keep on top of problems and help schedule maintenance.

“The center looks like a NASA control room,” Mr. Walsh said, referring to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the U.S. “Indeed, I’ve been told it’s better than NASA,” he added.

London-headquartered Rio plans to invest almost US$15 billion to expand annual iron-ore output in the Pilbara to 333 million metric tons by 2015, from 239 million tons last year. In addition to the automated trucks, Mr. Walsh said, Rio is testing drill rigs programmed to position blast holes, analyze rock samples during drilling and coordinate with a vehicle for deliveries of explosives. Trials have been completed on automated trains, each stretching for 2.5 kilometers with 234 ore cars. Each car carries 100 tons of ore.

Mr. Walsh says the automation won’t mean cuts to Rio’s work force [subscription link], though it will change the nature of some jobs, many of which will be away from mine sites—”giving people greater living and working options and attracting more talent.”

The work force to operate the 14 mines in the Pilbara, which now numbers more than 14,500, will climb by about 6,000 as production increases, he said.

Human oversight is available inside a more-or-less pleasant control room in an air conditioned trailer: one superviser for every ten trucks.

This provokes more thought about self-directed vehicles as DARPA experiments proceed, Drone aircraft replace warbirds requiring pilots – and, of course, Google’s driverless Priuses.

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