Mining giant BHP Billiton has flagged plans to expand the fleet of driverless vehicles servicing its iron ore operations in the Pilbara.
Jimmy Wilson, BHP Billiton's president of iron ore, has announced that BHP will increase the scope of its trials of automated driverless trucks at the mining giant's Pilbara-based operations.
Wilson made the announcement at the opening of Jimblebar, BHP's newest iron ore mine in the Pilbara, where the company plans to incorporate a second autonomous truck circuit by mid-2014.
BHP already has six autonomous trucks in operation at Newman, located around 40 kilometres to the west of Jimblebar, as well as six trucks at nearby Wheelarra.
Safety concerns were cited by the company as a key motivation for its expanded trial of robot haulage vehicles.
"The use of autonomous haul trucks has the potential to introduce safety benefits by removing people from potentially hazardous environments [and] increasing the predictability and productivity of haulage operations," said the BHP in an official statement.
In addition to better safeguarding the physical wellbeing of workers, another advantaged brought by automation noted by BHP is "reducing the labour intensity of future mining operations." This is expected to be particular benefit to miners in Australia, given the country's high labour costs and obstinately lofty exchange rate.
BHP first unveiled plans to introduce driverless trucks at the end of 2012, while in mid-2013 the miner opened its Integrated Remote Operations Centre in the Perth CBD, enabling a workforce of around 300 people to control complex mining operations in the far-off Pilbara.
At the time of the centre's opening Jimmy Wilson hailed its potential to enhance supply chain operations "from pit to port," as well as raise productivity and advance the company's goal of achieving output of 220 million tonnes of ore each year.
"One of the things that this does bring to the organisation is improved productivity through improved volume flows through our existing sets of equipment," said Wilson.
Chief rival in the iron ore space Rio Tinto has been ahead of the game in its efforts to adopted automated technologies, opening a similar centre two years prior to BHP.