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Rio Tinto transports iron ore with autonomous train

The 280km journey in Western Australia was made under Rio Tinto’s autonomous train programme aimed at improving the productivity and safety of workers

Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has carried 28,000 tonnes of iron ore from its mining sites in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert in Pilbara, Western Australia, using an autonomous train, underscoring miners’ efforts to improve operations through greater use of automation.

Covering a distance of 280km, the autonomous train, comprising three locomotives, was monitored remotely by operators via on-board cameras from Rio Tinto’s operations centre in Perth, more than 1,500km away. All public rail crossings on the network have been fitted with CCTV cameras and upgraded to meet safety standards.

The inaugural journey was made under Rio Tinto’s A$940m Autohaul programme following approval by regulators in May 2018. By the end of the year, a network of autonomous trains will be commissioned, making it the world’s first heavy-haul, long-distance autonomous rail operation.

Besides unlocking safety and productivity gains for Rio Tinto and optimising its iron ore system by providing more flexibility and reducing bottlenecks, the autonomous trains will also improve the safety and productivity of workers, the company said.

“We are working closely with drivers during this transition period as we prepare our employees for new ways of working as a result of automation,” said Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto’s managing director for rail, port and core services for iron ore mining.

Vella said the firm will ensure its autonomous trains are deployed safely under a wide range of conditions in Pilbara, where it currently operates about 200 locomotives on more than 1,700km of track.

Transporting iron ore from 16 mines to four port terminals, the trains clock an average return distance of about 800km, or eight million kilometres a year. The average journey cycle, including loading and dumping, takes about 40 hours.

Besides Rio Tinto, Perth-based Citic Pacific Mining is also exploring the use of autonomous drilling and autonomous trucks at its iron ore mines. It is currently using sensors to track its fixed and mobile assets, including light vehicles and trucks.

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“Sensors are getting cheaper and can be quickly deployed on light buses and trucks,” said Ray Achemedei, general manager for information services at Citic Pacific. “With sensors, we can now gather real-time data on an asset, not just to know where it is, but also its operating conditions.”

Achemedei said this data can be surfaced in a way that can be acted upon and makes sense to the business, such as sending fuel trucks only to vehicles that require refuelling.

Driven by the need to improve worker safety and productivity, as well as to reduce operational costs, the global mining automation market is expected to grow from $2.2bn in 2017 to $3.3bn by 2023.

The Asia-Pacific region is expected to become the largest market for mining equipment and automation technologies, thanks to its swathes of natural resources and greater use of automated mining equipment by leading exploration and mining companies.

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