A vision of the future is here

THERE’S a buzz in the air at Rio Tinto with talk of remotely controlled mines, intelligent drills and driverless trains and trucks.

THERE’S a buzz in the air at Rio Tinto with talk of remotely controlled mines, intelligent drills and driverless trains and trucks.

Rio Tinto is changing the face of mining.

Like a declaration of war on inefficiency, production costs and skilled labour shortages its chief executive Tom Albanese has come out swinging with a bold new strategy to integrate and automate mining and transport in the Pilbara iron ore region.

His vision of the “mine of the future” aims to position the company in integrated and automated mining and transport in the Pilbara iron ore region, leading to greater efficiency, lower production costs and more attractive working conditions that will help Rio Tinto to recruit and retain staff in the highly competitive labour market.

The “mine of the future” program will provide opportunities for technology driven performance improvements to support Rio Tinto Iron Ore’s (RTIO) aggressive plans to take annual global iron ore production beyond 600 million tonnes.

The program includes: mine operations in the Pilbara to be controlled 1300 km away at a new centre in Perth; driverless trains to carry iron ore on most of the 1200 km of track; driverless ‘intelligent’ truck fleet; and remote control ‘intelligent’ drills.

Major components of the “mine of the future” are being commissioned in RTIO operations in 2008 and 2009 including establishing a Remote Operations Centre (ROC) in Perth to manage operations in the Pilbara mines hundreds of kilometres away. This allows operators overseeing RTIO mines and process plant facilities to be physically located in Perth, Western Australia.

Remote control “intelligent” trains, drills and trucks will be operational within RTIO during 2008.

Humans will no longer need to be hands on as all this 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 ROC.

The Remote Operations Centre (ROC) will be built for Rio Tinto near Perth’s domestic airport.

When completed in 2009, the ROC will house at least 320 employees who will work with Pilbara-based colleagues to oversee, operate and optimise the use of key assets and processes, including all mines, processing plants, the rail network, ports and power plants. Operational planning and scheduling functions will also be based in the ROC.

ROC-based management would oversee pit and plant control, as well as manage the most effective use of power distribution and support activity such as maintenance planning. Remote operation of RTIO mines and plant in the Pilbara has already been successfully trialled.

The centre will feature an operational control room, office block and supporting infrastructure, and allow for potential significant expansions beyond its initial scale.

Studies are being finalised on the application of Autonomous Train Operations technology in a heavy haul capacity and are expected to lead to significant efficiency benefits. Mainline trials 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.

Rio Tinto will also introduce into the Pilbara the industry-leading Komatsu Autonomous Haulage System, which will allow for a fleet of 320 tonne off-highway trucks to be operated without drivers.

The system will be commissioned before the end of 2008 and is expected to be more widely deployed in new and existing RTIO operations by 2010.

Rio Tinto is already using bespoke autonomous drill technology in the Pilbara to support the ‘mine of the future’ strategy.

Rio Tinto began work on defining building blocks for the ‘mine of the future’ over a decade ago and key components required for an integrated mine-to-port operating system are being assembled and tested by RTIO.

A number of key technologies have been introduced on a staged basis, beginning in 2006 with the development of autonomous drilling rigs for the Pilbara. In early 2007, Rio Tinto established and funded on a long term basis the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation in partnership with The University of Sydney. Under this partnership Rio Tinto has secured exclusive access to world renowned robotics experts dedicated to addressing Rio Tinto’s “mine of the future” opportunities.

This year RTIO will start running extensive trials at dedicated mine test site.

Trials will combine the world leading Komatsu Autonomous Driverless Haulage System with a range of other advanced remote control and autonomous technologies in order to provide an industrial scale proving ground and template.

Experience gained by the business will allow for further deployments in the Pilbara in 2010 and will also have application at other Rio Tinto mining operations.

Rio Tinto has at least a three year start on the rest of the industry, which has focused on discrete technologies rather than modernising the whole mine-to-port operation.

Its aim to be a global leader in fully integrated, automated operations is commendable.

It will allow for more efficient operations and directly confront the escalating costs associated with basing employees at remote sites, giving them a competitive advantage as an employer along the way.

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