By Samantha James

Rio Tinto Iron Ore holds 15 mines 1700km of rail, four port terminals, three power stations, and around 360 trucks, 39 production drills and 190 locomotives in the Pilbara region of WA. All these assets utilise various integrated automated systems, also relying on unmanned trucks and drills to mine iron ore.

RIO Tinto produces more than 295 million tonnes per annum of iron ore from its Pilbara operations.

Following the completion of port and rail infrastructure in 2015, Rio Tinto is concentrating on improving system-wide efficiency and productivity.

The company has been researching new ways to deliver cost savings and improve environmental impacts and safety since operations commenced nearly 50 years ago; and then in 2008 the Mine of the FutureTM program was launched which brought together all technology and innovation developments.

The program looked at finding advanced ways to extract minerals while improving safety and reducing adverse impacts. It was behind the design and creation of the Pilbara operations centre, autonomous haulage systems (AHS), automated drilling systems (ADS) and AutoHaul (autonomous trains).

Rio Tinto believed its first-mover advantage with new technology was providing a productivity edge that would not be bridged by others in the foreseeable future.

 Automation and technology

Rio Tinto has carried out expansions at its ports and railway networks as well as inland mines as part of plans to increase production by more than 60mtpa by 2017.

These expansions led to a 10 per cent increase in production and shipments in the first half of 2015 compared with 2014, despite unseasonably bad weather in the Pilbara. Iron ore operating costs for fiscal 2015 were reduced by almost US$1 billion compared to 2014.

Rio Tinto’s unmanned haul truck fleet is quickly becoming the largest in the world. Image: Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto’s unmanned haul truck fleet is quickly becoming the largest in the world. Image: Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto attributed some of the increased production and costs savings to automation, stating in its half year results that “significant cost savings and productivity benefits” were achieved due to the reduction in labour requirements for the autonomous trucks and drills.

The autonomous truck fleet had seen a 14 percent increase in operating hours; at one site the automated trucks had load utilisation rates 14 per cent higher than manned trucks and their operating costs were 13 per cent better.  This has resulted in improved productivity, greater predictability and overall increase in return on assets.

About 400 million tonnes of material had been moved by autonomous trucks in the Pilbara, from when the project began in 2008, to August this year. Rio Tinto expected to reduce maintenance costs by US$200 million a year across the next three years, assisted by its unmanned vehicles, drills and trains.

Rio Tinto’s operations centre in Perth employs around 400 workers and enables all its mines, ports and rail systems to be operated from a single location, ensuring optimal supply chain performance though the coordination between expansion and operation teams.

Rio Tinto general manager mine fleet management and technology James Petty said the operations centre was a key part to the success of Rio Tinto’s Pilbara operations.

“Having the operations centre synchronise, fine-tune and leverage our integrated supply chain to its optimum level will continue to generate significant value into the future,” he said.

“Real-time equipment data flowing back to the operations centre also means we can better manage the condition and life of our assets and optimise maintenance activities.

“Employees at the operations centre are able to respond to opportunities and challenges with the most up-to-date information available, meaning better, smarter, faster decisions at every level.”

Rio Tinto’s operations centre in Perth ensures optimal supply chain performance. Image: Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto’s operations centre in Perth ensures optimal supply chain performance. Image: Rio Tinto.

The company’s growing AHS fleet makes it the world’s largest owner and operator of AHS trucks. In October 2015 it had 69 autonomous trucks in operation at its Pilbara sites and more are planned.

Mr Petty said AutoHaul would allow Rio Tinto’s trains to operate without stopping for driver shift changeovers and other human induced interventions, and reduce the number of kilometres workers had to drive per week to access change over points.

“We are currently driving 70,000km per week which adds up in time and costs. Removing these travelled kilometres will also reduce the likelihood of vehicle accidents,” he said.

“When you consider that it takes between 20 to 30 minutes to undertake a controlled stop of our locomotives each time a shift changeover is required and a further 20 minutes to restart, you can see the benefits to productivity that this project adds.”

Mr Petty said that while the development of autonomous programs had reduced labour costs by eliminating some human resources, the programs had created jobs elsewhere.

“We have seen a reduction in the amount of truck drivers required at a site that has autonomous trucks operating; however, there have been many roles created at these sites to support the program, such as pit patrollers and controllers to operate and direct the truck fleet.

“Autonomous trucks [also] require additional specialist roles for both operation and maintenance of their technical systems,” he said.

Technological innovations

Earlier this year Rio Tinto conducted an unmanned aviation vehicle (UAV, or drone) trial at one of its Pilbara operations to observe how effective UAV’s were in completing a range of tasks.

Over a three day period several flights were conducted to inspect, survey, take images and collect geothermal data. Site engineers concluded that the use of UAV’s could increase safety through reduced exposure, and increase productivity through faster real time inspections via a number of different mediums.

Rio Tinto believes automaton is the way of the future. Image: Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto believes automaton is the way of the future. Image: Rio Tinto.

Mr Petty said drones could have further applications, especially for safety.

“In the future drones could perhaps play a role in assessing situations such as bushfires, which would [reduce the need for] people to put themselves at risk by entering dangerous or unknown hazardous situations,” he said.

“Another example is monitoring weeds as well as remote turtle nesting sites. Rio Tinto is [also] looking to trial drones to inspect vast stretches of rail and power infrastructure.”

Mr Petty said the company was always considering and testing new technology, but utilisation depended on the initial outlay – personnel requirements, costs, and training required – balanced against potential returns.

Rio Tinto technology and innovation chief executive Greg Lilleyman said the company’s Mine of the Future program was “already delivering significant group-wide productivity improvements” but that more would come.

“Rio Tinto’s first-mover status in autonomous equipment has resulted in significant productivity gains while our use of big data analytics has allowed us to safely extend maintenance cycles,” he said.

“The technology and innovation team is also ensuring that Rio not only undertakes the right projects but when we do them, we do them right.”