Is the future of mining robotic?

Published: 08 Oct 2013

Mining is big business and with the success of the Autonomous Hauling System, it’s set to get even bigger.

Robotic co-workers could be a thing of the future

What do you get when you cross a dangerous and extremely labour intensive job with a robot? The Autonomous Hauling System of course. Mining is a huge industry all over Australia, however at the Rio Tinto mines in Pilbara, Western Australia, (WA) they’ve been doing things differently for a while.

A new brand of mining technology, created by engineers as part of a recent push for self-driving vehicles, includes trucks that can take over the worst jobs and free up human workers for more important tasks. By loading, hauling and dumping raw iron ore means that humans literally don’t have to get their hands dirty.

The huge vehicles are remotely controlled from a base in Perth, 930 miles away, by an operator at the Rio Tinto’s Australian headquarters. Each vehicle is fitted with a wireless system that is built directly into the GPS system. As soon as the vehicle’s engine starts, the communication system assigns a specific pathway and a list of commands to complete when it reaches its destination. The human controllers are constantly monitoring the truck and journey, so course adjustments can be delivered in a split second.

This engineering marvel is a step forward in creating a sustainable future where machines and humans work to complement one another, instead of, as sceptics say, simply replacing the human element. Human and robot work side by side, with the human workers still carrying out the surveying and inspection work.

Since 2008 the machines have logged 621,371 miles and have moved around 100 million metric tons of ore. The mining industry is notorious for working around the clock and the tireless machines can push production to levels that human workers would be unable to match.

The trucks comprise of the following stats:

  • 930E electric drive
  • Super-large PC5500 hydraulic excavator
  • D475A bulldozer
  • WD900 wheel dozer
  • GD825 motor grader

Capable of hauling a 290-ton payload, it’s essential that the safety systems are entirely up to standard. They’re monitored 24/7 and all data from the trucks is captured in the supervisory computer. The fleet control system stops potential collisions with other vehicles or equipment on the mining site while an obstacle detection system will immediately slow or stop the vehicle.

The Automated Haulage System is seen as a way to optimise operations, particularly in inhospitable areas, such as deserts. The real effects of optimisation include lower CO2 emissions and lower maintenance costs.

Further automated technological advancements are planned by Rio Tinto, who have successfully tried automated production drills, which have a new and innovative approach to rock-recognition, and an automated train. The train, known as AutoHaul™, is to be launched in 2014 and completed in 2015.


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