Driverless trucks move all iron ore at Rio Tinto's Pilbara mines, in world first
Driverless trucks move all iron ore at Rio Tinto's Pilbara mines, in world first published by Mooba
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Posted on 2016-03-23
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The first two mines in the world to start moving all of their iron ore using fully remote-controlled trucks have just gone online in Western Australia's Pilbara.
Mining giant Rio Tinto is running pits at its Yandicoogina and Nammuldi mine sites, with workers controlling the driverless trucks largely from an operations centre in Perth, 1,200 kilometres away.
Josh Bennett manages the mining operations at Yandicoogina mine north west of Newman and is closely involved with running 22 driverless trucks on the site.
Mr Bennett said the two pits are the largest of their kind in the world.
"To the naked eye it looks like conventional mining methods. I guess the key change for us is the work that employees and our team members are doing now," he said.
"What we have done is map out our entire mine and put that into a system and the system then works out how to manoeuvre the trucks through the mine."
The company is now operating 69 driverless trucks across its mines at Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs 4.
The trucks can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without a driver who needs bathroom or lunch breaks, which has industry insiders estimating each truck can save around 500 work hours a year.
Mr Bennett said the technology takes away dangerous jobs while also slashing operating costs.
"We have taken away a very high risk role, where employees are exposed to fatigue," he said.
"It is quite challenging to get repeatability out of a human, one of the advantages we have had with autonomous haulage particularly in the truck fleet we notice we are getting consistency in terms of the way the machines are operating.
"One of the biggest costs we have got it maintaining mobile assets, so we spend a lot of time on our operator training, education.
"So, there is obvious capital savings, in terms of setting up camps, flying people to site, there is less people so there is less operating costs, but there are some costs that come into running the system and maintenance of the system as well."
Rio's plans do not stop at trucks. It is also trialling unmanned trains and mining with robot drills with the aim of rolling out the machines across as many of its mine sites as possible.
Eventually most of the company's supply chain from the pit to the port will be remote controlled from Perth.
Mr Bennett said that involves the creation of new, highly skilled positions.
"We have a whole dedicated team based in Perth that is looking at how to optimise the system, looking at maintenance, productivity...those are jobs that did not exist five years ago," he said.
"We have got roles which are being created such as a central controller and a pit controller which are essential to running the autonomous system."
Rivals, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group are hot on Rio's heels; both have launched into the new world of automated mining, trialling similar technology at their Pilbara mines.
With the decade-long mining boom pushing up wages and costs to unrealistic heights and ongoing scrutiny of safety in mines, it is a shift market commentator Giuliano Sala Tenna from Bell Potter Securities said was necessary for Australian producers to remain ahead of other global producers.
"The benefit of technology is the one to many relationship, so you can just have one individual or one full time equivalent doing the job of many people," Mr Sala Tenna said.
"What they are really looking at is what is going to be required for the next decade to stay profitable and this is one of the things they need to do in order to stay profitable through the entire cycle."
With the move away from manual jobs, there is a greater need to train up a workforce with a different skill set.
Senior lecturer with Curtin University's School of the Mines, Dr Carla Boehl, said the changing nature of the industry is creating new opportunities for her students.
"In terms of trades, there will be fewer jobs, but in terms of maintainers we still need them, we can't live without them," she said.
"All this technology, bit data and analytics will actually increase the number of jobs in more analytical work, it is a change from trade jobs to more analytical ones."
Dr Boehl said students are being proactive in learning about the new technology.
"The students themselves are interested, they want to do their thesis in this field and learn more about automation," she said.
"At a post graduate level we are starting to do more work regarding maintenance, automation, we do a lot of big data understanding, what is big data, what algorithms can be used to support systems."
But the high level of secrecy still shrouding the evolving industry is making is difficult for her students to learn about it during university.
"It is still a bit of a secret in terms of what is happening in automation, because we don't have the information from the big players," she said.
"I have students wanting to do PhDs in this topic, but we need the data to do that, we are not getting that data from companies like Rio Tinto, BHP or FMG.
"We will continue talking with these people and negotiating to get that."
Despite the challenges, robotic experts believe it provides big opportunities.
Dr Raymond Sheh from Curtin University's Computing Department has been studying robots for more than a decade and said the innovation must be exploited.
"There are new jobs coming online that support these new technologies," he said.
"You still need people in there to monitor where they go, to tell them where they should be going and should be doing, even though a lot of that scheduling is being done automatically."
Rio plans to fully automate its trains by the middle of next year once the Office of Rail Safety includes the technology in its safety guidelines.
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