Rio Tinto preparing for the Mine of the Future with automation

With the company's long-haul autonomous rail system set to go live later this year, Rio Tinto's former CEO offered a glimpse into how it has been using data and automation to prepare for the Mine of the Future.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

A decade ago, mining giant Rio Tinto kicked off its Mine of the Future program, and alongside it an operations centre in Perth, Western Australia, purely for the company's iron ore business.

Rio Tinto's iron ore business includes not just its 16 mines; it also comprises 1,500km of rail, three ports, three power stations, and a water and sewer system across an area the size of New South Wales.

Combined, its operations generate 2.4 terabytes of data every minute from hundreds of pieces of mobile equipment and sensors that provide real-time data on location and condition monitoring of the equipment, specifically.

Speaking at the Gartner Data & Analytics Summit in Sydney on Monday, Rio Tinto's former CEO Sam Walsh said the company's operations centre revolutionised how the industry has approached integrated mining, turning 16 individual mines into one integrated mining processing and logistics system that is controlled by operators 1,500km away from the physical sites.

"Today much like an air traffic controller, it has many moving parts, and looks like NASA's control centre," Walsh said.

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," Walsh added. "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 said, 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.

At a similar time, the company also introduced automated drills in production drilling.

The former CEO explained that mining involves three stages of drilling as the mining engineers work to understand the oil body: Exploration drilling, infill drilling, and production drilling.

"[Exploration drilling] tends to be relatively wide-spaced once the prospective deposit has been located -- and God clearly has a sense of humour as he or she bases oil bodies in very remote, out of the way places -- it ensures that oil bodies are not contiguous with seismic, volcanic, or sedimentary action," Walsh said.

As oil body confidence increases, and a viable project develops, the company needs to conduct infill drilling to assist in defining the oil body. With drill spacing of around 50 metres depending on the oil body and geology, Walsh said quantifying confidence on tonnage and grades is "notoriously difficult" unless there's a large amount of information available.

"Hence the need for infill drilling in order to generate as many data points as economically possible," he added.

Production drilling then requires the injection of explosives to break up and expose the oil body.

"Rio Tinto's automated blast hole drill system enables the operator to use a single console at a remote location from the machinery and operate multiple drills -- it's much safer for the operators," he explained, also noting that it is more precise using technology.

"This was actually conducting in real time as drilling was taking place. Importantly, it enabled the operators to determine the rock structure and hence the amount of explosives that you would actually use."

The third major autonomous push by Rio Tinto has been the automation of its heavy rail system -- a train comprised of 244 cars stretching a total of 2kms.

"This rail automation program has been in development for five years and is expected to come to fruition by the end of this year," Walsh told the conference. "Unbelievably, the robots are actually able to drive the trains faster."

Although tight-lipped on the specifics, Walsh said the major challenges in the rail automation project have been software and communications-related, but that Hitachi is onto it.

"Who would have thought just 10 years ago that a mining company would use big data to analyse variation of plant and mine performance from a global perspective," he added. "I call it six sigma on steroids."

Rio has also developed a centre in Brisbane with the assistance of the University of Queensland to analyse the real time performance of Rio Tinto's processing plants around the world.

The company has also established an analytic excellence centre in India, which is aimed at reducing maintenance and production costs from unplanned breakdowns, using machine learning and advanced modelling to identify problems before they occur.


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