Retrofit for purpose

Rio Tinto has taken another ambitious step into the future of automation with a world-first retrofitting initiative.

Poised to expand its fleet of autonomous haul trucks at its iron ore operations in the Pilbara by more than 50 per cent by 2019, the company has signed agreements with leading manufacturers Caterpillar and Komatsu to convert a haul of traditional trucks into autonomous vehicles.

This initiative arrives less than a year after Rio Tinto successfully ran the world’s first fully autonomous heavy haul train for a 100km pilot run without a driver on board in September 2017, and a decade after the mining giant first began deploying autonomous technology in 2008.

A total of 29 Komatsu haul trucks will be retrofitted with Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) technology. Marking the first time AHS technology has been deployed by Rio Tinto on Caterpillar haul trucks, 19 trucks at its Marandoo mine will also be retrofitted commencing mid-2018 for completion by the end of 2019.

The technology allows trucks to be operated by a supervisory system and a central controller, as opposed to a driver. Pre-defined GPS courses automatically navigate haul roads and intersections, understanding locations, speeds and directions of all vehicles at all times.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Chris Salisbury said the company was excited to begin a new chapter in its automation journey alongside long-term partner Caterpillar, while extending its partnership with Komatsu.

“Rapid advances in technology are continuing to revolutionise the way large-scale mining is undertaken across the globe,” he said.

“The expansion of our autonomous fleet via retrofitting helps to improve safety, unlocks significant productivity gains, and continues to cement Rio Tinto as an industry leader in automation and innovation.

While approximately 20 per cent of the existing fleet of almost 400 haul trucks in the Pilbara are already AHS-enabled, the completion of the retrofitting projects with Komatsu and Caterpillar will see Rio Tinto grow that number to over 130 autonomous trucks, representing about

30 per cent of the fleet. 

In 2016, Rio Tinto’s autonomous fleet accounted for approximately a quarter of the total material moved across its Pilbara mines.

Automation has already played an enormous role in the company’s productivity and efficiencies across its operations in the Pilbara. On average, each autonomous truck was estimated to have operated about 700 hours more than conventional haul trucks during 2017, with approximately 15 per cent lower load and haul unit costs.

The company also noted there had been no injuries attributed to autonomous haul trucks since deployment, highlighting their significant safety advantages.

In late January, its fleet of autonomous haul trucks achieved a significant milestone at the company’s operations in Australia by moving their one billionth tonne of material.

“We are studying future additions to our autonomous truck fleet that we expect will contribute to our $5 billion productivity program, specifically Iron Ore’s commitment to deliver $500 million of additional free cash flow from 2021 onwards,” Mr Salisbury said.

“We remain committed to working closely with our employees as we expand our autonomous haul truck fleet including providing opportunities for new roles, redeployment, retraining and upskilling.”

Picture: Rio Tinto.

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