Automation Drives 'Mine of the Future'

Rio Tinto, a big mining and commodities company in North American and Australia, has found a way to eliminate the stresses and strains experienced by Australian miners: automated operations. The company's chief executive, Tom Albanese, announced these initiatives on Jan. 18:

* Mine operations in the Pilbara iron ore region will be controlled 1,300 kilometers away at a new center in Perth
* Driverless trains will carry iron ore on most of 1,200 kilometers of track
* A driverless "intelligent" truck fleet will be deployed
* Remotely controlled "intelligent" drills will be used

Albanese called this vision "the mine of the future" in a Perth speech and said it is part of Rio Tinto's drive to maintain its position as Australia's leading iron ore producer. Higher efficiency, lower production costs, and more attractive working conditions will result, which will help the company recruit and keep workers in a highly competitive labor market, he said.

Major components of this automated mine are being commissioned in Rio Tinto Iron Ore operations in 2008 and 2009, including establishing a Remote Operations Centre in Perth to manage operations in the Pilbara mines. Remote-control "intelligent" trains, drills, and trucks will be operational within Rio Tinto Iron Ore this year. These pieces of equipment will be "autonomous," able to make decisions on what to do based on their environment and interaction with other machines. Operators will oversee the equipment from the center.

"Rio Tinto is changing the face of mining," said Albanese, who joined the company in 1993 and became its CEO on May 1, 2007. "We have at least a three-year start on the rest of the industry, which has focused on discrete technologies rather than modernizing the whole mine-to-port operation. We're aiming to be the global leaders in fully integrated, automated operations. It will allow for more efficient operations and directly confront the escalating costs associated with basing employees at remote sites, giving us a competitive advantage as an employer along the way."

Inside the ROC
The Remote Operations Centre will be built near Perth's domestic airport. When completed in 2009, it will house at least 320 employees who will work with Pilbara-based colleagues to oversee, operate, and optimize the use of key assets and processes, including all mines, processing plants, the rail network, ports, and power plants. Remote operation of the mines and plant has already been successfully tested, the company said.

Meanwhile, studies on the application of Autonomous Train Operations technology in a heavy-haul capacity are being finalized and are expected to lead to significant efficiency gains, he said. Mainline trial runs conducted with the Western Australia Office of Rail Safety have progressed well, and a decision on the next stage of the project is expected in mid-2008. Automated rail management is the first major operation scheduled to be run from the Remote Operations Centre. The company will introduce into the Pilbara region the Komatsu Autonomous Haulage System, which allows a fleet of 320-tonne off-highway trucks to be operated without drivers. The system will be commissioned before the end of this year and is expected to be more widely deployed in new and existing Rio Tinto Iron Ore operations by 2010.

Rio Tinto is already using bespoke autonomous drill technology in the Pilbara to support the "mine of the future" strategy. The company began work on defining building blocks for the "mine of the future" more than a decade ago. It began phasing them in during 2006 with the development of autonomous drilling rigs. In early 2007, the company established and funded the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation in partnership with The University of Sydney, giving Rio Tinto exclusive access to world-renowned robotics experts.

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