Rio Tinto to Deploy Driverless Caterpillar Mining Trucks in Australia

Author: Michael Cheng   

Autonomous driving platforms are capable of offering numerous solutions for hazardous and physically demanding work sites. When it comes to improving safety and reducing operational costs, many mining companies based in Australia are adopting driverless systems for such purposes.

Contributing to the mining industry's autonomous goals is Rio Tinto – one of the most productive metal and mining establishments in the world. Founded in 1873, the corporation specializes in copper, uranium, titanium oxide, iron ore and diamonds. To improve mining operations in Australia, the business partnered with Caterpillar for a massive retrofit project involving the transition of industrial mining trucks to autonomous transport and hauling units.  

Retrofit Projects in the Works

The partnership agreement entails the transition of 19 Caterpillar 793F mining trucks in the Marandoo iron ore mine in western Australia. Installation will start in 2018 and finish by 2019. This project marks Rio Tinto's first attempt at deploying a self-driving fleet in its mining facility. After installation, the fleets will be managed by Caterpillar and regional dealer WesTrac.

"We are grateful for the opportunity to work with Rio Tinto in installing their first Cat autonomous haulage system," said Jean Savage, Caterpillar vice president with responsibility for the Surface Mining & Technology Division. "Working with WesTrac, we look forward to helping Rio Tinto enhance operations with our proven mining technology."

Rio Tinto is also working on another autonomous retrofit project, which includes the transition of 29 Komatsu trucks. Interestingly, when both projects are finished, around 30 percent of the company's fleet will be fully autonomous.

Instead of human drivers, the business will rely on roughly 400 operators to monitor operations. Previously, 2.5 human operators were required per hauling unit to ensure safety.

The supervisors are channeled by a central controller system, while the trucks are guided via GPS. The paths and courses have been pre-programmed by operators to boost efficiency. During navigation, autonomous trucks take numerous factors into consideration, such as the location, speed and direction of other units in the work site.

Improving Iron Ore Mining Operations

Outside of Australia, Rio Tinto hosts mining facilities in Spain and Canada. The business set aside a whopping $5 billion for improvement programs related to its mining fleets. With competitive annual production quotas, the company has been using autonomous technology since 2008.

"We are studying future additions to our autonomous fleet in the Pilbara, based on value, to help deliver our share of $5 billion of additional free cash flow for the company by 2021," explained Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury.

The business is very keen on maximizing the potential and benefits of autonomous trucking systems. In 2016, Rio Tinto recorded an additional 1,000 hours of operation for its fleet of driverless hauling trucks. Furthermore, the trucks were able to operate at a 15 percent lower load and haul unit cost, compared to traditional mining vehicles.

In addition to self-driving trucks, Rio Tinto also operates autonomous drill systems. The units are used to streamline drilling in production blast holes.

Michael Cheng
Michael Cheng is a legal editor and technical writer with publications for Blackberry ISHN Magazine Houzz and Payment Week. He specializes in technology business and digesting hard data. Outside of work Michael likes to train for marathons spend time with his daughter and explore new places.
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