Mining giant Rio Tinto is beginning the process of automating iron ore mines and reducing staff numbers in the Pilbara.
Rio has now deployed 57 driverless trucks at its Hope Downs 4 joint venture with Hancock Prospecting, and recently tested its first autonomous train, dubbed AutoHaul, in the Pilbara.
The mining giant operates 15 iron ore mines and continues to boost production into an oversupplied Chinese market, despite the price of the steel-making commodity falling to $US51 a tonne.
Rio Tinto’s managing director of Pilbara mines Michael Gollschewski said innovation and automation were still a work in progress.
“We’ve only just started,” Mr Gollschewski told a business lunch.
“We’ve got these various technologies and in their own right they’re providing benefits, but we still haven’t got it working as a mine automation system that is fully functioning.
“There’s a lot of technologies that we’re working on that start to get these different things talking to each other that will further drive efficiencies.”
Mr Gollschewski said Rio normally needed 60 drivers for 15 trucks, but with autonomous trucks this would be reduced to eight operators and larger maintenance crews.
“Roughly speaking there’s around a third less people involved in load haul but the overall skill levels of that group increase,” he said.
“We probably employed less people than we would have done.”
Rio is the world’s largest operator of autonomous trucks and has hauled more than 200 million tonnes of iron ore over several years using the driverless technology.
The miner produced 290 million tonnes of iron ore in 2014.
In 2012 it announced it would spend half a billion dollars on driverless, high-tech trains which would be controlled in Perth and displace as many as 500 train drivers from their jobs.