Rio Tinto, Western Australia bring automation to the classroom

About 25% of Rio Tinto’s existing fleet of almost 400 haul trucks in the Pilbara is autonomous. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto | Flickr.)

Mining giant Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) has begun testing Australia’s first nationally recognized qualifications in automation as a group of workers and 30 students from Perth’s southern suburb take the first two courses offered on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The goal, said the government of Western Australia, is to equip locals with the necessary skills needed to take advantage of automation opportunities.

The new courses were developed by the Resource Industry Collaboration, which counts among its members the state government, Rio Tinto, FMG, BHP and Komatsu.

“They will allow us to maintain our competitive advantage as a leader in automation technology in Australia and ensure local people have the skills for the new jobs that are being created through technological innovation,” WA Premier Mark McGowan said in a statement.

“They will also ensure the diversification of our economy and help Western Australians assist the mining industry well into the future.”  

Australia’s first nationally recognized qualifications in automation aims to provide workers with new skills in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industry

Rio Tinto, which contributed AU$2 million ($1.4m) to develop the courses, began shipping iron ore last year between its Mount Tom Price mine and the port of Cape Lambert via fully autonomous trains.

The world’s No.2 miner is also expanding its fleet of autonomous haul trucks, controlled from Perth, with 30% of its fleet, or about 130 trucks, to be autonomous by the end of the year.

The autonomous system allows trucks to be operated by a central controller rather than a driver. It uses pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate roads and intersections and knows actual locations, speeds and directions of all vehicles at all times.

Getting to this point was not easy. The actual commissioning of the autonomous trains project was put off a few times, partly due to software problems. The first autonomous rail trip was finally completed in October 2017.

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

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