Rio Tinto's Mine of the Future project

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The global mining company Rio Tinto launched its Mine of the Future project in 2008 with the aim of automating and remotely controlling major aspects of its iron ore projects in the Pilbara region but with an eye to rolling out the technology across all its operations worldwide.[1]

Launch

At the time of the initial launch in Perth Rio Tinto's chief executive Tom Albanese outlined that the project would initially focus on having "mine operations in the Pilbara to be controlled 1,300 kilometres away at a new centre in Perth", "driverless trains to carry iron ore on most of the 1,200 km of track", "driverless "intelligent" truck fleet" and "remote control "intelligent" drills".[1]

The company boasted that greater automation would lead to "greater efficiency, lower production costs and more attractive working conditions that will help Rio Tinto to recruit and retain staff in the highly competitive labour market."[1]

"Remote control 'intelligent' trains, drills and trucks will be operational within Rio Tinto Iron Ore during 2008. Humans will no longer need to be hands on as all this equipment will be 'autonomous' - able to make decisions on what to do based on their environment and interaction with other machines. Operators will oversee the equipment from the ROC [Remote Operations Centre]", the company stated.[1]

In a media release at the time Albanese boatsed that "we have at least a three year start on the rest of the industry, which has focused on discrete technologies rather than modernising the whole mine-to-port operation. We're aiming to be the global leaders in fully integrated, automated operations. It will allow for more efficient operations and directly confront the escalating costs associated with basing employees at remote sites, giving us a competitive advantage as an employer along the way."[1]

In a March 2010 speech, the CEO of Rio Tinto, Tom Albanese, stated that "at its heart is the vision of better mining operations, greater energy efficiency, lower production costs, and improved safety and environmental performance. Visit Perth in Western Australia, and you will see how our Operations Centre is already coordinating and optimising a number of mining operations across the vast Pilbara iron ore region. You will see innovations such as driverless trucks that haul their own loads, as well as drilling rigs with sophisticated automated robotics systems. You will see autonomous sensing equipment being used to fine tune the varying streams of ore to maximise recovery, and in doing so making real savings of energy, water and time. And the reason it is so exciting is that it involves taking the best and most modern scientific principles and applying them to traditional mining practices."[2]

On its website Rio Tinto states that the project is "demonstrating improvements to mining processes that include unprecedented levels in automation, and remote operations that will revolutionise the way mining has been conducted for more than 100 years. Mine of the Future will help us improve our sustainable development performance in several areas. The programme is designed to create next generation technologies for mining operations that result in greater efficiency, lower production costs, improved health, safety and environmental performance, and more attractive working conditions."[3]

Trial projects

Rio Tinto has begun trialling the use of robotics in the A Pit of the West Angelas iron ore mine in Western Australia. "For example, some of the roles currently based at the mine site will, in the future, be based in a city thousands of kilometres away. Employees will work like air traffic controllers. They will supervise the automated production drills, loaders and haul trucks from a remote operations centre in Perth," the company states on its website.[3]

Rio Tinto is also aiming to deploy new approaches in the development of new mines and in particular at it Resolution Copper project in Arizona and the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project in Mongolia, both of which will use an underground block cave mining method. "This method requires construction of significant underground infrastructure prior to ore production," the company states. To reduce costs Rio Tinto has been developing "two new tunnelling concepts from Atlas Copco and Aker Wirth will enable fast and cost effective tunnel creation. The shaft boring machinery being developed by Herrenknecht will combine rock excavation, rock transport and structural support - currently three separate processes - into a single system."[3]

In a June 2011 media release Rio Tinto stated that the tunnel boring system "will be trialled next year at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales with shaft boring system trials to follow. Rio Tinto believes these rapid mine construction developments through the tunnel and shaft boring systems could lead to a reduction of up to 40 per cent in the time taken to construct an underground mine."[4]

The company states that the A Pit trial, which was slated to be complated at the end of 2010, "has effectively showcased a number of foundation technologies spanning the Rio Tinto autonomous drill rig platform, with control and supervision able to be provided by our remote operations centre in Perth; and the Komatsu FrontRunner autonomous haul truck system and semi autonomous smart explosive loading."[5]

The company has also opened its centralised Operations Centre (OC) in Perth to "manage all aspects of operational control for mining, rail transport, ship loading and associated critical infrastructure (eg power and water) for all Rio Tinto Iron Ore Pilbara operations."[5]

Results

In June 2010 Rio Tinto stated that, a year after establishing the operations centre in Perth to remotely control its Pilbara iron ore mining, rail and port projects that the centre employeed 400 people. "The benefits of the Operations Centre can already be quantified with increased efficiency, improved safety, decreased variability and better identification of performance issues across the iron ore business in Western Australia," the company stated.[5]

The company also announced its intention to double its fleet of driverless haul trucks at its iron ore operations in Western Australia.[5]

The trialling of autonomous production drills for use in blast-hole drilling is continuing. The company stated that "the intent of the integrated system is that automated blast-hole drill rigs will precisely position the blast holes, conduct live rock analysis, dictate to the explosives delivery vehicle the correct charge for each hole and provide data supporting three dimensional mapping systems to provide detailed imaging of each deposit."[5]

In November 2011 Rio Tinto announced that it would to buy at least 150 driverless trucks from from Komatsu Limited over the next four years for use in its Pilbara iron ore mines to be controlled from its Perth Operations Centre. In a media release the company stated that "the move signals a 15-fold expansion from its previous plan to double the fleet to 10 trucks." For the first time the company also indicated that the automation program would start to include its coal operations. In its media release the company stated that it would "begin more widespread deployment of its automated drills, both in the Pilbara and at coal and copper mines."[6]

Articles and resources

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 "Rio Tinto chief executive unveils vision for "mine of the future"", Media Release, January 18, 2008.
  2. Tom Albanese, "Mineral resource development in a globalised world", Presentation to China Development Forum, Beijing, March 21, 2011, page 3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rio Tinto, "Mine of the Future", Rio Tinto website, accessed June 2011.
  4. Rio Tinto, "Rio Tinto's Mine of the Future™ programme tests advanced technologies for underground tunnelling, exploration and mineral recovery", Media Release, June 10, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Rio Tinto, "Mine of the Future: Results", Rio Tinto website, accessed June 2011.
  6. Rio Tinto, "Rio Tinto boosts driverless truck fleet to 150 under Mine of the Future™ programme", Media Release, November 2, 2011.

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