by Tim Lohman

Rio Tinto flags further automation technology investment

May 11, 20124 mins
MobileNetworkingSmall and Medium Business

Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) has sung the praises of the greater use of automation technology in its Australian mining operations, suggesting that remote controlled trucks, trains and mining equipment will play an increasing role in the mining giant’s business.

Speaking at the company’s 2011 annual results meeting, chief executive, Tom Albanese, said the company was differentiating itself through the development and implementation of innovative technologies.

“I am genuinely excited by the step changes in technology, which include our Mine of the Future Programme,” he said.

The Mine of the Future program places emphasis on sustainable development and, in particular, increasing the company’s reliance on remote controlled equipment such that staff based in the company’s Perth remote operations centre can supervise automated loaders and haul trucks based thousands of kilometres away in the Pilbara region.

In November, Rio announced that it would purchase at least 150 driverless trucks from Komatsu for its operations in the Pilbara, Western Australia region. The expansion, from an initial number of 10, is “the first operational deployment of this technology in Australia, or anywhere, on such a scale,” according to Albanese.

“These trucks can be run from our Operations Centre in Perth, and we are seeing those benefits becoming increasingly evident in our day to day conduct of the business,” he said.

“In 2015 I hope to see half the tonnes we move in the Pilbara being moved with driverless trucks…” Albanese said later in the meeting in response to analyst questioning.

Read CIO Australia’s in-depth feature on Resource CIOs in Australia

According to Albanese, Rio also intended to deploy autonomous drills and driverless trains. In February, the company announced its intention to invest US$518 million in autonomous trains for its 1500 kilometre Pilbara iron ore rail network in Western Australia.

The first driverless train is slated to launch in 2014, with an automated train program, AutoHaul, scheduled for completion a year later. The company runs 41 trains from mines to ports made up of 148 locomotives and 9,400 iron ore cars.

Rio believes automating its trains will result in productivity improvements, greater flexibility in train scheduling, extra capacity in the rail network as well a more efficient fuel use and fewer carbon dioxide emissions for each tonne of iron ore produced.

Albanese added that a tunnel boring system, operated under Rio’s copper group, remained on schedule with trials due to start at Northparkes NSW early in the second half of this year. We are evaluating opportunities to trial a second tunnel boring system.

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In December last year, Rio Iron Ore group CIO, Rohan Davidson, told CIO Australia that the company was also focusing on technology to attract and retain workers in its remote operations.

“While they’re at our work sites, they expect to remain connected to their friends and families at work and in their free time,” he said.

“Social media, mobile phone connectivity, the quality of in-room digital systems and availability of tools like Skype are becoming increasingly important, and provision of these forms part of our strategic and operational plans – no simple feat in the Pilbara. Providing the communications infrastructure and support for these systems is a key operational challenge.”

The CIO added that he also viewed mobile technologies as being crucial to Rio’s workforce. The company makes use of infield data capture and mobile computing.

“Mobile technologies are an area we have looked to other industries for inspiration,” he said in December. “There is a great opportunity to untether our workforce from their PCs. The Oil Gas and Logistics industries show what is possible in this field.”

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