​Rio Tinto gets green light for autonomous rail operation

The mining giant has been granted accreditation for its AutoHaul autonomous train transport project.

Rio Tinto has announced receiving accreditation from Australia's Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator, allowing the mining giant to operate its autonomous fleet of trains at its iron ore business in Western Australia.

The AutoHaul project -- a train comprised of 244 cars stretching a total of 2kms -- is currently slated for completion by the end of this year.

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Once commissioned and a "phased deployment" has occurred, Rio Tinto said its network will be the world's first heavy haul, long distance autonomous rail operation, touted as providing safety and productivity benefits for the business.

The AutoHaul project is focused on automating trains transporting iron ore to Rio Tinto's port facilities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Rio Tinto estimates its Pilbara shipments for 2018 will sit between 330 million and 340 million tonnes.

At the end of the first quarter of 2018, approximately 65 percent of all train kilometres were completed in autonomous mode, Rio Tinto said.

Trains started running in autonomous mode with a driver on-board monitoring operations in the first quarter of 2017. In October, the company then claimed to have conducted the country's first autonomous long haul train journey.

Rio Tinto operates about 200 locomotives on more than 1,700 kilometres of track in the Pilbara, transporting ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.

10 years ago, Rio Tinto introduced fully autonomous haul trucks as one of the first steps in its Mine of the Future program.

"I smile when I hear the rush to develop autonomous vehicles by Uber, Google, and pretty well every car company on planet Earth," Rio Tinto's former CEO Sam Walsh said previously. "Rio was the first mining company to introduce fully-autonomous haul trucks in 2008."

The 80 vehicles are each the size of a two-storey building, Walsh told the Gartner Data & Analytics Summit in Sydney in February, and they carry 350 tonnes and operate totally independently using GPS. As of recently, the trucks have moved over 1 billion tonnes of material and travelled over 150 billion kms.

"The first rule in any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify that efficiency," Walsh said, quoting Bill Gates. "The second rule, he said, is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

"These autonomous trucks, by the way, have reduced fuel use by 13 percent and hence improved environmental performance by 13 percent."

The autonomous trucks are helping the Australian-British multinational's bottom line, but also providing a solution to the struggle of attracting young people to work in a remote area.

"And the trucks are safer to operate, there's no such thing as a catnap or breaching of driver safety," he added.

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