Rio Tinto embraces automated mining
Rio Tinto embraces automated mining

Rio Tinto embraces automated mining

Any story on mining will not be complete without covering the latest happenings at the Rio Tinto mines in Australia. This is the mine which is transforming the mining industry through innovations like driver-less trucks and many others.

It´s approaching Christmas 2015, and Rio Tinto´s "steel ballet" - embodying the largest civilian robotics project on Earth - has safely, economically and with choreographed precision, delivered a million tonnes of iron ore from 20 mines to ships bound for customers worldwide in a single day.

Though the goal sounds awesome, the technology and systems that will help deliver it are already hard at work: the Mine of the Future™¢ is fast becoming the mine of the present. Autonomous trucks roll smoothly from rockface to crusher or dump, while automated drilling rigs sink elaborate shot-hole patterns to be charged by a robot explosives truck for the next, scientifically-shaped blast. Soon, driverless ore trains will ferry their loads through the iron-red folds of the Pilbara Ranges. All this is taking place under the watchful eyes of new-age "miners" in a cyber-age operations centre located in Perth, 1,500 km away.

Reinventing mining
In its proving phase at West Angelas Pit A, the Mine of the Future™¢ has shifted 60 million tonnes of rock - and any questions about the technological gamble of reinventing the ancient art of mining are swiftly being answered. The feat was accomplished methodically, in complete safety and with 70 per cent fewer humans working in the danger zone. In three years, its ten autonomous trucks have traversed a distance almost equivalent to going to the moon, and back, without a human hand laid on the steering wheel.

But this project is about far more than a herd of heavyweight robots, impressive though they may be. It is, says James Petty, general manager, Mine of the Future™¢, Rio Tinto Iron Ore: "a total system. It´s about machines operating in a very smart environment." The whole mining operation is planned in advance and is dynamic. It has a memory. It learns. It anticipates trouble and responds. Its neural paths interlink at light-speed. It functions like a brain the size of an iron ore province, coordinated by the "control tower", the Operations Centre in Perth.

Autonomous trucks
Over the coming three years, the plan is for the ten initial Komatsu 930E 290-tonne Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) trucks to be joined by 140 others, following the signing in November 2011 of a memorandum of understanding between Rio Tinto and Komatsu Limited president and CEO, Kunio Noji. These will form up as the largest driverless mining fleet in the world, and rumble into action at nine new iron ore mines, each individually landscaped from the start for automation.

Contrary to popular ideas about automation, there are still people in the pit - just fewer than before, and performing different tasks. The diggers, graders and dozers are still operated by humans and there are supervisors and controllers - but the workforce that runs autonomous trucks is less than half that of a manned fleet. Even the water cart that lays the dust is scheduled for automation. Ten autonomous Komatsu trucks are deployed at Yandicoogina. Two or three years after that, the combined fleet will reach 150.

Consistency and reliability
A similar transformation is on the cards for the Terex SKSS15 rigs that drill the blasting pattern. Three are in current operation, controlled from an autonomous vehicle on site. By 2017 Rio Tinto will have almost all of its drill rigs "autonomous-ready", with a single operator controlling several, eventually from Perth, and sinking over a million holes a year. A growing fleet of smart explosives trucks will prime the shot-holes with precisely the right charge, based on information fed back to them by the drill rig. Not only will the drill sense rock hardness, the rigs will eventually carry an on-board sampler and chemical analyser to assay and record the ore being drilled, and link up with a roving rock-face inspection system.

Besides shaping the explosion to precisely the geography and geology of the site while using minimal propellant, the automated procedure has important implications for Rio Tinto´s customers, half a world away. James Petty explains why understanding the precise nature of the ore to be mined enables the entire process of mining, crushing, blending, stockpiling, transport and delivery to be performed with silken smoothness: "It´s a step-change in orebody knowledge. Knowing what we´re about to mine from any given pit enables us to model the supply-demand pipeline in detail and in advance - ores can be blended at source to suit customer requirements with reduced dependence on stockpiles either at the mine or at the port. This saves time, handling and costs. It´s more consistent and more reliable. It adds up to improved quality management," he explains.

A vital link in the automated chain will be supplied by the driverless trains and automatic car loaders and unloaders, collectively known as AutoHaul™¢, which are scheduled to enter service over the next two to three years. This half-billion-dollar enterprise will become the world´s first fully-automated, heavy-haul rail operation, running more than 40 trains (comprising 10,000 ore cars in total) on an extensive 1,300 km rail network across the Pilbara.

Workforce expansion
Contrary to popular imagining, automation needn´t involve the loss of jobs - in fact Greg Lilleyman, president, Pilbara Operations, expects the workforce to grow by several thousand in coming years as more and more automated mines come on stream. Existing mines are not really designed for automation, and will continue to be operated manually for the foreseeable future. An automated mine is laid out differently to enable the smooth flow of its robot machines - a pattern resembling a railway rather than a road system, with all its intersections and halts.

The present plan calls for the movement of three million tonnes of material a day on 20 mines by December 2015, half of it using autonomous trucks and mining systems. The ore itself will be blended and delivered to the company´s West Australian seaports by 40 trains, and loaded onto ships bound for cus¡tomers worldwide at the staggering rate of up to a million tonnes a day. As a consequence of expansion, the workforce will grow by several thousand - and the jobs will be increasingly high-tech, specialised and decentralised. While large numbers will continue to fly-in and fly-out of giant remote mines, others will enjoy a permanent capital city lifestyle while helping to run them.

As the robots of tomorrow begin their intricate dance amid the billion-year-old landscapes of Western Australia, a new era in global mining is being born.

Status Check
Mining company´s AutoHaul autonomous railway system is behind schedule, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The much-anticipated AutoHaul project, which Rio Tinto mining company hoped to have operating last year, hasn´t advanced beyond tests. It expects to produce less ore in the coming years because of the delay, says the publication.

Driverless trains hauling ore from 15 mines in Australia´s Pilbara region were aimed at transforming the mining industry. In 2012, Rio Tinto disclosed its plans for the trains to travel roughly 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) of rail to ports where the company loads cargo ships full of the steelmaking commodity destined for customers across Asia. It expected AutoHaul to cost $518 million but save money by using fewer workers and fuel and giving the company more flexibility on train schedules.

(This article originally appeared in Mines to Market, and has been authored by Julian Cribb)

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