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Rio Tinto’s ‘world’s largest robot’ delivers first iron ore load

Autonomous train operating in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. (Photo by Christian Sprogoe. Courtesy of Rio Tinto)

Rio Tinto’s fully autonomous train, said to be the world’s largest robot, has completed its first delivery of iron ore between the company’s Mount Tom Price mine and the port of Cape Lambert.

The “significant milestone” in Rio’s  $940 million Autohaul project was reached on Tuesday when the train consisting of three locomotives and carrying around 28,000 tonnes of ore made the 280km driverless journey.

Driverless train, consisting of three locomotives and carrying around 28,000 tonnes of iron ore, travelled over 280 km from Rio’s Tom Price mine to the port of Cape Lambert.

The trip was monitored remotely by operators at Rio’s Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500km away.

The average return distance of these trains is about 800 kilometres with the average journey cycle, including loading and dumping, taking 40 hours.

“The program will deliver the world’s first fully autonomous, long-distance, heavy-haul rail network, operating the world’s largest and longest robots,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director Rail, Port and Core Services, Ivan Vella, said in the statement.

“This program symbolizes both the pioneering spirit and innovative talents of many people across Rio Tinto and shows our absolute commitment to improving safety and productivity, as well as enabling greater flexibility across our operations,” Vella noted.

He added the company, the first top miner to install an autonomous rail system, is working closely with drivers during the transition period as it prepares employees for new ways of working as a result of automation.

Mine of the future is here now

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, autonomous by 2019.

The auto 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 last year.

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 and which also included the introduction of autonomous haulage trucks, automated drilling and the roll out of an operations centre near Perth airport.