Rio Tinto Steams Ahead With First Driverless Ore Train

By Robb M. Stewart Features Dow Jones Newswires

MELBOURNE, Australia--Driverless trains hauling iron ore across Australia's arid Pilbara region were meant to transform the mining industry, until the technology proved much trickier than companies expected. But a successful test run by Rio Tinto PLC suggests the automation strategy may finally have shifted up a gear.

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On Monday, Rio Tinto said it had completed a pilot run spanning nearly 62 miles with trains operated by individuals in an air-conditioned control room hundreds of miles away. The milestone puts it on track for a late-2018 commissioning of the so-called AutoHaul project, which has been dogged by software problems and repeated delays. Until now, Rio Tinto's trains have run about half of the miles across its Pilbara network in autonomous mode, albeit with drivers still on board to oversee operations.

Driverless mining vehicles promise greater efficiency for an industry that continues to target costs even as it pulls out of a tough few years in the wake of a slump in commodities prices. Rio Tinto and others have bet hundreds of millions of dollars on being able to control trains, drill rigs and massive trucks from remote offices. Rio Tinto said it has already seen the benefits from AutoHaul in increased train speeds and fewer stops that have cut more than an hour from average journey times.

"This successful pilot run puts us firmly on track to meet our goal of operating the world's first fully autonomous heavy-haul, long-distance rail network," said Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto's iron ore division.

The Anglo-Australian company is one of the world's top exporters of iron ore, and runs about 200 locomotives around some 1,060 miles of track in the Pilbara that haul ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.

In early 2012, shortly after agreeing to buy at least 150 driverless trucks from Komatsu Ltd. over several years, the company said it would spend US$518 million converting trains to driverless locomotives that would be rolled out after two years. But testing since 2014 has been a drawn-out affair, and software problems early last year set the schedule back and led to a pared target for annual iron-ore production.

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The autonomous test of the train was overseen from Perth, where Rio Tinto in 2010 opened an operations center that has become a control hub for a network of mines, and employees sit behind screens and buttons, able to monitor trains remotely via satellite links. A fully autonomous rail network still needs to meet safety criteria and receive regulatory approval.

Mr. Salisbury said the focus on automation technology was delivering a longer-term competitive advantage for Rio Tinto, and new roles at the company were being created to manage future operations. Some jobs are expected to be lost when drivers are eventually pulled from the trains, although the company has said it is retraining workers to ensure they remain part of the industry.

Trains with AutoHaul technology will be able to operate continuously without shift changes and the company said they would improve safety, with trains responding automatically to speed limits and alarms. Across the Pilbara, several drills are already controlled remotely, and about 20% of the fleet of 370 haul trucks is run autonomously.

In the first half of the year, Rio Tinto's Pilbara mines shipped 154.3 million metric tons of iron ore. That was a drop of 3% year-over-year after being affected by storms and rail-track maintenance, but it was more than offset by a surge in prices for the steelmaking ingredient. It is targeting about 330 million tons for the year, which would be only modestly higher than in 2016 and well short of the company's port capacity of 360 million tons.

Write to Robb M. Stewart at robb.stewart@wsj.com

Write to Robb M. Stewart at robb.stewart@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 02, 2017 01:43 ET (05:43 GMT)