Rio Tinto boosts driverless truck fleet for use in Pilbara

World #2 iron ore miner Rio Tinto (LON:RIO) has reached a deal with Komatsu to buy 150 driverless truck over the next four years.

The new trucks, which will start arriving in 2012, will be used in Rio Tinto’s Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia and can be controlled from its Operations Centre in Perth more than 1500 km away.

Rio says the vehicles will increase productivity by hauling more material quicker. The Komatsu Autonomous Haulage System, a world first, has been tested in the Pilbara since December 2008.

The company currently operates a fleet of 203 standard haul trucks and 10 driverless vehicles.

“Autonomous haulage is an important component in our Mine of the FutureTMprogram.  These 150 new trucks will work with our pioneering Operations Centre that integrates and manages the logistics of 14 mines, three ports and two railways,” Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese said in a statement. “These technologies are revolutionizing the way large-scale mining is done, creating attractive hi-tech jobs, and helping us to improve safety and environmental performance and reduce carbon emissions.”

MarketWatch reported that the program is part and parcel of  Rio’s plan to cut labour costs (base salaries run at A$120,000 including accommodation, food and weekly return flights), as the company looks to increase output to 333 million metric tonnes by 2015.

Profit margins have also been hit recently by falling iron ore prices which have dropped by a third from a month ago.

Competitors Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG) and BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) are also looking at driverless truck technology. reported in September that BHP wants to “future-proof” its massive Olympic Dam project, including using driverless haulage trucks; the company put out a recruitment ad for an executive to oversee the high-tech initiative. The $30 billion expansion plan would create the world’s biggest open pit mine  – trucks will haul overburden 24/7 for five to six years just to reach the ore body.

Read an indepth article on automated mining equipment at Magazine