All Aboard the Robot Train

Mining giant Rio Tinto’s robot train project in outback Western Australia has successfully made its first delivery, a milestone which the company’s boss says could soon open up a talent war with the likes of Google and Apple.

From a control center in Perth more than 1,500 km away, Rio Tinto’s robot train last week carried 28,000 tons of iron ore from the Mount Tom Price mine to the port of Cape Lambert, a distance of 280 km.

The successful delivery means that the USD 940 million AutoHaul rail system developed by Rio Tinto could be fully operational by the end of the year as the company moves to extend automation throughout its business.

This could result in around 50 autonomous trains a day, forming part of the company’s plan to achieve production of 360 million tons of iron ore by the end of 2019.

While the shift means that Rio Tinto needs fewer train drivers and workers on site in mines, it could also open up a talent war for digital skills.

Rio Tinto’s Chief Executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques told local Australian media that the company’s future personnel needs, focusing on skills such as data science, would put it in “direct competition” with companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google.

This would be particularly acute in Australia, which he said was "falling behind" regarding developing graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) skills.

Jacques said that soon around "two thirds" of the engineers hired by Rio Tinto could be data scientists.

"It is absolutely clear that technology, automation, artificial intelligence, and digitization will play a more important role across the industry, and its fair to say, in Australia today it is difficult to find data scientists," the Rio Tinto chief said.

"If today I recruit 100 engineers, two-thirds of them are more mining type engineers, and one third would be data scientists.

“I have no doubt in my mind, five or seven years into the future, if you have 100 engineers then two-thirds of them will be data scientists.”

Developing these skills in Australia, he said, was “not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a must do.”

Jacques’ comments are backed up by research from professional association Engineers Australia, which showed a “plummeting” rate of secondary students taking up STEM subjects.

The 2017 research showed that less than 6% of Australian secondary students studied physics in their final year, while the numbers for advanced maths were also low at 11.2% for girls and 11.5% for boys.

All this means that Australian businesses are heavily reliant on offshore and migrant worker skills as they pursue their digital transformations.

Australian technology company Atlassian captured worldwide attention when it listed on the US Nasdaq market in 2015 valued at USD 8 billion.

Co-founder Scott Farquhar has publicly said that the company would not have been able to develop as rapidly without being able to bring in foreign workers, and opening operations offshore to fill the gap.