riotintotrain100764001orig Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto's 'world's biggest robot' makes first driverless delivery

Rio Tinto’s fully autonomous train has completed its first delivery of iron ore between the miner’s Mount Tom Price mine and the port of Cape Lambert, the organisation announced today.

The “significant milestone” in Rio’s Autohaul project was reached on Tuesday when the train consisting of three locomotives and carrying around 28,000 tonnes of iron ore made the 280km journey without a driver on board.

The trip was monitored remotely by operators at Rio’s Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500km away.

Autohaul will be fully commissioned by the end of this year, Rio said, and will be “the world’s first heavy haul, long distance autonomous rail operation”.

The US$940 million project was granted accreditation by Australia's national rail regulator – the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator – in May. It is understood to be the first time accreditation has ever been given to a driverless rail operation in Australia.

“The safe first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train is a key milestone for AutoHaul. The programme will deliver the world’s first fully autonomous, long-distance, heavy-haul rail network, operating the world’s largest and longest robots,” said Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director rail, port and core services Ivan Vella in a statement.

“This programme symbolises both the pioneering spirit and innovative talents of many people across Rio Tinto and shows our absolute commitment to improving safety and productivity, as well as enabling greater flexibility across our operations,” he added.

Locomotives carrying AutoHaul software are fitted with on-board cameras while all public rail crossings on the network have been fitted upgraded CCTV systems.

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“We will continue to ensure our autonomous trains operate safely under the wide range of conditions we experience in the Pilbara, where we record more than eight million kilometres of train travel each year. We are working closely with drivers during this transition period as we prepare our employees for new ways of working as a result of automation," Vella said.

Safety and productivity gains

The $317.5 million contract for the development and delivery of an automated train management system including a highly-specialised modular signaling system was awarded to Ansaldo STS (a Hitachi Group company) in 2012.

Testing of AutoHaul began in earnest in 2014. The project suffered delays in early 2016, which Rio blamed on “software issues”. The first trains started running in autonomous mode with a driver on-board in the first quarter of 2017.

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The budget for the project has since risen considerably, with the miner upping the approved spend to US$940 million.

It will lead to “significant safety and productivity gains for the business” Rio said, as well as “optimising the company’s iron ore system by providing more flexibility and reducing bottlenecks”.

In October last year the miner completed its first fully autonomous rail journey, when a train successfully completed a 100km pilot run from Wombat Junction to Paraburdoo without a driver taking control.

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“Gains from AutoHaul are already being realised including reduced variability and increased speed across the network, helping to reduce average cycle times,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said at the time.

Rio Tinto operates around 200 locomotives on more than 1,700km of track in the Pilbara, transporting ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.

Currently around 65 per cent of all train kilometres in the region are completed in autonomous mode. To date more than three million kilometres have traversed in driverless mode, although with a driver on board ready to take control.

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