Two Aussie mines start moving all their iron ore with driverless trucks

Labour unions may not like it, but it is likely that future mines will operate with a much higher percentage of automated (read "driverless") vehicles than currently.

Indeed, mining technology slipped into a higher gear this week with the announcement that the first two mines to start moving all their iron ore using remote-control technology just went online in the Pilbara iron ore belt of Western Australia.

Automated trucks at Rio Tinto's (ASX, NYSE, LON:RIO) Yandicoogina and Nammuldi mines are being controlled through an operations centre in Perth 1,200 kilometres away, according to a weekend post on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's site. The iron ore behemoth now has 69 driverless trucks across its Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs 4 mines, states ABC. The trucks run 24/7, every day of the year and each truck is estimated to save around 500 work hours annually.

The ascent of driverless mining vehicles, of course, is not exactly news; it is part of a larger shift towards increased automation in mining. The difference between previous driverless applications and the news on the weekend is that Yandicoogina and Nammuldi will move all their iron ore without the guidance of a human driver.

A brief history: Back in 2011 Mining.com reported on Rio Tinto reaching a deal with Komatsu to buy 150 driverless truck over the next four years. At the time Rio said the vehicles will increase productivity by hauling more material quicker. Three years later, BHP Billiton completed a trial of Caterpillar driverless trucks at its coal mine in New Mexico, and in 2013 started using autonomous haulers on a trial basis at its Jimblebar iron ore mine in the Pilbara.

Fortescue Metals Group (ASX: FMG) has said it has future plans to implement automated trucks at its Solomon mine, also in Western Australia, while Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT), the world's largest heavy equipment manufacturer, has a complete line of high-tech autonomous mining equipment, including driverless dozers and haulers.

In 2014 when BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) opened the Jimblebar iron ore mine, the opening coincided with an announcement that BHP would expand its driverless truck fleet from the six Caterpillar 793F autonomous trucks being trialed at Jimblebar since 2013, with another six to be tested at its neighboring Wheelarra operation.

ABC quotes a mining commentator, Giuliano Sala Tenna from Bell Potter Securities, as saying the shift to driverless is necessary for Australian producers to stay ahead of competition in other countries. "The benefit of technology is the one to many relationship, so you can just have one individual or one full time equivalent doing the job of many people," he said. Along with cost savings, autonomous technology is also expected to make open-pit operations safer, since the work haul truck operators do can be dangerous and accidents can occur due to fatigue.