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Rio Tinto speeds up driverless fleet expansion in Australia

Fifteen autonomous trucks will be introduced to Rio’s West Angelas iron ore mine in the Pilbara region. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto | Flickr)

Mining giant Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) is expanding its driverless trucks fleet in Australia by introducing 15 autonomous vehicles to a new mine in the Pilbara region.

The trucks, to be deployed later this month to the West Angelas iron ore mine, are fitted out with the company’s in-house autonomous haulage system (AHS), AAP reported.

West Angelas, run by Rio’s Robe River joint venture partners, Mitsui and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, will be the fifth mine to be serviced with driverless trucks.

Ten years after Rio began a trial of its autonomous trucks, they now haul about 25% material generated by the company’s five mines in the Pilbara region.

Rio has more than 80 autonomous Komatsu trucks currently in operations, hauling about a quarter of both ore and waste material generated across the company’s five sites in the Pilbara region, including the newly commissioned Silvergrass mine.

The miner plans increasing the number of driverless trucks to more than 140 by the end of 2019.

In December, the company approved retrofit programs to add autonomous technology to 48 existing Komatsu and Caterpillar haul trucks over the next two years.

About 20% of Rio Tinto’s existing fleet of almost 400 haul trucks in the Pilbara is autonomous and, following the completion of the retrofit projects autonomous trucks, this will rise to about 30% of the fleet, the miner said last month.

Rio has worked with Komatsu for 20 years. In September 2017, they deployed the world’s first retrofitted autonomous haul truck at the company’s Hope Downs 4 operation.

A supervisory system and a central controller, rather than a driver operates autonomous haul trucks. They use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections and to know actual locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles at all times.

Rio has also announced plans to have a network of driverless trains in Western Australia. In October, it completed its first long-haul journey with a completely autonomous locomotive.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. The actual commissioning of the autonomous trains project has been put off a few times, partly due to software problems.

Delays with the implementation of autonomous iron ore trains hurt Rio Tinto’s output in 2016. The miner ended up producing 330 million tonnes, down from the original target of 350 million tonnes.

The so-called Autohaul plan is part of the “Mine of the Future” project the company launched in 2008, which also included the introduction of automated drilling and the roll out of an operations centre near Perth airport.