Robots Are the New Mine Workers

Industries don’t come much older than mining, and yet resources giants Rio Tinto and BHP are leading the charge in introducing automation and robotics in their mines in Western Australia.

It began with Rio’s autonomous trucks and will soon extend to driverless trains, with the ultimate aim being a fully autonomous mine remotely controlled from an operations center in Perth, the Western Australian capital, around 1,200 km away.

Rio, which introduced its first driverless trucks about a decade ago, is possibly five or so years ahead of other miners regarding automation and serves as a case study.

Certainly, the company has the capital to invest in new technology and the scale to make it worthwhile, but eventually many of the Rio innovations and the new technology will make it into more extensive use elsewhere in the industry.

Many rivals, BHP included, have been happy to watch Rio take the lead on automation but now that the technology is delivering results, 2018 presents as something of a tipping point regarding adoption.

Iron Robots

The testbed has been Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations in the West Australian Pilbara region.

Already, approximately 20% of the total fleet of around 400 haul trucks are autonomous, and that percentage will increase to 30% in the next two years.

The trucks, according to managers, deliver the same productivity as manned vehicles over 12 hours, but it is over 24 hours when drivers need to stop for coffee, food and rest, that the autonomous vehicles deliver their savings. These are essentially 300-ton robots which stop only once a day, for refueling.

In October 2017, the company also completed the first fully autonomous rail journey, a pilot run over 100 km, and is seeking regulatory approval to implement the system full time.

The plan is to run driverless trains on a 1,700-km stretch of track between Rio’s 16 iron ore mines and four export ports.

Autonomy, says the company modeling, will provide a 6% improvement in average speed and the elimination of three driver changes over a 40-hour period.

It doesn’t stop at trucks and trains either. The Perth-based control room oversees the operations of six autonomous drilling rigs, which can run for a third longer than manned rigs, and churn through 10% more meters per hour.

Massive Savings

Regarding savings, Rio expects the autonomous program in its iron ore business will deliver an additional AUD 500 million in free cash flow by 2021.

It is apparently without the USD 2.2 billion “intelligent” iron ore mine the company has suggested for another of its Western Australian projects called Kookaederi.

A feasibility study is currently underway looking at the implementation of robotics and driverless trains and trucks in a single mining operation. Robotic applications could extend to assaying, drilling, and autonomous surveying through the use of drones.

When Rio began bringing in the driverless trucks in 2015, other mines were happy to watch and see how the experiment went. Now, others are following suit.

Rio’s big rival BHP is now rolling out autonomous drills and trucks at one of its Western Australian iron ore mines, Jimblebar, with the mine expected to be fully autonomous by the end of the year.

The autonomous truck fleet alone is expected to reduce haulage costs by 20%.

The same is happening at the giant Roy Hill iron ore mine, where truck drivers will be phased out over 2018.

Smart Mines

Rio’s experience shows that the “smart mines” deliver cost savings and will ultimately boost output, and projections across the wider resources industry are immense.

McKinsey has forecast that, by 2035, data analytics and robotics could produce annual savings of up to USD 390 billion per year across the global resources industry, while the World Economic Forum figure is that digital initiatives can deliver USD 420 billion in benefits over the next decade.

Companies like Rio have been early adopters but “fast followers” like BHP have been watching and are now following, and fast. Mining, it is clear, is no longer an “old economy” industry.