Mining giant Rio Tinto plans to operate the world's first fully automated long-distance heavy haul rail system by 2015 as part of its $7.2 billion Mines of the Future program.

Rio will spend $518 million on the development of the AutoHaul system – a gargantuan haulage automation project which will consist of 1,500 kilometres of track, 10,000 wagons and individuals trains which will run 2.3 kilometres long.

An operations centre located in Perth will be responsible for remote management of the system, providing greater convenience to staff by obviating the need to situate them in remote areas or arrange FIFO work schedules.

The system was developed in collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, and is the world’s largest privately funded robotics initiative, as well as the world’s first fully automated long-distance heavy haulage rail system.

Rio Tinto has already cooperated with the University of Sydney on the development of its automated truck fleet, also a part of the Mine of the Future Program, and will see 40 per cent of vehicles made driverless by 2016.

The Mine of the Future program was first launched in 2008, and focuses on four key areas: a centralized Operations Centre to conduct remote management, autonomous truck haulage (ATH), the AutoHaul autonomous train system and autonomous drilling systems. The Operations Centre commenced operation in 2009, while Rio has already conducted extensive trials of autonomous drilling.

Automated wide

The explicit objectives of this massive investment are “to reduce costs, increase efficiency and improve health, safety and environmental performance.”

According to investment bank CIMB Australia Ltd. AutoHaul alone could save approximately $100 million each year in drivers costs if the number of staff are reduced by just 400, given that train drivers entrusted with the haulage of iron ore in the Pilbara earn annual salaries of around $224,000.

Automation appears to be the inevitable trend for mining companies striving to raise efficiency and reduce expenses – particularly given prevailing market conditions, the pace of technological development, and high operating costs in first world countries such as Australia.

BHP Billiton flagged ambitious plans to expand to the use of automation in their mining operations earlier this year, with Gavin Yeates, BHP’s vice-president of mine optimisation, telling the Austmine 2013 conference in Perth that the introduction of autonomous technology had become a key priority.

“We are piloting and introducing new technologies in selected assets including integrated remote operating centres, autonomous haulage, autonomous drilling and different ways of evaluating and modelling ore bodies,” Yeates said.

While these efforts are expected to improve the bottom line for the mining giant, they bode poorly for employment in local communities. A report by the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining concluded that while automation will increase safety and efficiency, these advantages will arrive at the expense of on-site jobs and have a negative impact on regional economies.