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Rio Tinto to deploy driverless Komatsu trucks

One hundred and fifty autonomous trucks will be deployed into Rio Tinto?s iron ore operations in the Pilbara, Western Australia, after the two companies announced a Memorandum of Understanding in Tokyo.

Rio Tinto and Komatsu have been testing the Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) in the Pilbara since December 2008. The machines are essentially variations on its large electric mining trucks, the 930E, which weighs 210 tonnes and has a payload of 320 tonnes. The AHS units are powered by a 60-litre V16 turbo diesel engine, which produces 1900kW of power.

Rio Tinto chief executive Tom Albanese told ABC Rural the trucks are important pieces of technology for the company.

“These 150 new trucks will work with our pioneering Operations Centre that integrates and manages the logistics of 14 mines, three ports and two railways,” he said. “These technologies are revolutionising the way large-scale mining is done, creating attractive high tech jobs, and helping us to improve safety and environmental performance and reduce carbon emissions.”

The driverless trucks will be piloted from an operations centre in Perth, 1500km away from the site.

The machines are fitted with vehicle controllers, a high precision GPS system, obstacle detection systems and a wireless network system. Information on the target course and speed is sent from the supervisory system to the driverless trucks, while GPS ascertains their position.

When loading, the trucks are automatically guided to the loading spot, based on the position of the bucket of the GPS-fitted excavator or wheel loader.  The supervisory system then directs the trucks along the route to the dump location.

Rio Tinto says the driverless vehicles are necessary because of skills shortages.

“Now we’re pulling people from the likes of Perth and the east coast, we’re flying people from the east coast as well,” Rio Tinto spokesperson James Petty told the ABC. “There won’t be enough people to be able to run all the trucks that we need to run. And it’s not just us, our competitors in the Pilbara are growing at the same sort of rates that we are.”

Komatsu Australia managing director Sean Taylor believes the landmark deal is a direct result of the company?s investment in R&D.

?We?re very proud of our autonomous program, and the benefits it offers in a mining application. The scale of this rollout demonstrates clearly what the future of mining will look like,? said Taylor. ?Komatsu is setting up an Autonomous Support Centre in Perth which will be co-located with Rio Tinto?s Mine of The Future team, further underlining our joint approach to this technology.?

The secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy union, Gary Wood, isn?t as enthused about the plan.

“It won’t mean job losses but it will be the loss of job creation for Australian workers,” Wood told the ABC.

Deployment of the units is expected to begin next year, with the full 150 machines to be operational by 2015.

Sources: Rio Tinto, ABC, ABC Rural, Komatsu Australia

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