Mining giant Rio Tinto is massively expanding its Mine of the Future programme, in which IT drives automated exploration and production.
The company has announced a $518 million (£327 million) investment in driverless trains controlled by computers, running on its AutoHaul system, at its key Pilbara site in Australia. Pilbara is where it began the automated mining 2008 and where it has the largest IT-driven operation.
The first driverless trains will begin work in 2014, alongside the computer-operated trucks and drills already in use. Rio Tinto runs a 1,500 kilometre network.
"Automating train operations allows Rio Tinto to expand Pilbara production capacity without needing to make a substantial investment in additional trains," the company said. "It will also drive productivity improvements, with greater flexibility in train scheduling and the removal of driver changeover times creating extra capacity in the rail network."
Rio Tinto's Australia chief executive, Sam Walsh, added: "Rio Tinto is leading the way in large-scale use of automation, with plans to deploy 150 driverless trucks and our plans for AutoHaul."
"Automation also helps us address the significant skills shortage facing the industry, providing a valuable opportunity to improve productivity."
The automated trucks and trains will be managed by Rio Tinto's global Operations Centre, based in Perth. The centre integrates and manages the logistics of 14 mines, three ports and two railways.
The move to automation is expected to have a heavy impact on mining jobs, and Rio Tinto vowed to continue discussions with affected staff.
The news comes alongside plans by the company to introduce modernised and shaft and tunnel boring systems, with a degree of automation. It is also developing digital and sensing technologies to detect and separate the mineral from rock waste, in order to improve rates of recovery. Rio Tinto said that the technology "has the capability of being a potential game-changer in the mining industry".
Rio Tinto is also trialling autonomous production drills. The drill rigs position the blast holes, conduct live rock analysis, dictate to the explosives delivery vehicle the correct charge for each hole and provide data supporting three dimensional mapping systems to provide detailed imaging of each deposit.
Last year, Rio Tinto chief executive Tom Albanese said the projects were vital to the company's growth as it faces a tough mining environment with inflating costs, and as it looks to longer term opportunities. Also, he said the programme was critical in meeting a surge in commodity demands.
Photo: Rio Tinto