the mine of the future in Western Australia operated by Rio Tinto
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Explore the mine of the future in Western Australia operated by Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest producer of iron ore, has established one of the world’s most automated mines in Western Australia. However, the company still faces technical challenges to ensure a sustainable and profitable operation.

Looking through the porthole, the Australian outback appears as a uniform plain of reddish gravel, punctuated with thorns and stunted bushes. In the heart of the Pilbara, a desert in Western Australia as vast as France, an airstrip suddenly comes into view. However, landing there from Perth, the state capital located over an hour and a half flight to the south, is quite difficult. The airport serves no other purpose than a mine, whose facilities can be seen at the foot of a rocky hill. Like all the other barracks scattered across the sun-baked rocks, the small airport is owned by Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest mining group, after the Brazilian Vale. In June 2022, Rio Tinto added the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine to its existing sixteen facilities in the Pilbara. Most importantly, it is a display of the group’s technological innovations, in which they invested 3.1 billion US dollars (2.9 billion euros).

“It summarizes the technologies deployed in our other sites. With Gudai-Darri, we have revolutionized the way we construct mines,” explains Matt Holcz, Rio Tinto’s director of mining operations in the Pilbara.

The most prominent feature is the open-pit mine, which is projected to yield 43 million tons of iron ore annually at maximum capacity. A broad entrance ramp scales the hillside of a three-kilometer plateau, swarmed by bulldozers and excavators. Access is restricted by a barrier, beyond which lies the realm of automated trucks. Two crawler drills, bearing the words “autonomous” in red letters on their sides, drill regular holes where explosives will be placed to extract the ore. Caterpillar 793 dump trucks, towering at almost seven meters, zoom past in a cloud of dust, carrying 220 tons of iron ore. What is unusual is that there is no human figure visible in the driver’s seat.

Heather-Mae Cassidy, in charge of equipment automation, points out her favorite truck from the promontory overseeing the autonomous truck ballet. This particular truck is not much smaller than the others, but has the unique ability to spray the track with water, reducing water consumption by measuring soil moisture levels and recording movements. According to Cassidy, it is the only autonomous tank truck in the world. However, Rio Tinto has not yet measured the actual water savings achieved. All this takes place under the blazing sun in the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine, where Rio Tinto has invested 3.1 billion US dollars to showcase its technological innovations.

The automation doesn’t only apply to trucks. Beyond the screening process where the crushed rocks are separated, lengthy conveyors transport the ore to the laboratory. A robotic arm collects a sample every six minutes and prepares it for chemical analysis, which Frank Pachioli, the laboratory manager, describes as “converting dust into data.” At the end of the conveyor, a train consisting of 230 wagons, spanning 2.5 kilometers, waits for loading without any driver on board.

A large private railway network

Rio Tinto is not alone in pursuing automation in the Pilbara, where almost 40% of the world’s iron ore is produced. BHP and Fortescue, its competitors, have also invested billions of Australian dollars in automation. However, Rio Tinto was the first to commit to it a decade ago to safeguard its primary source of income.

According to Mark Cotter, an EY consultant, these technological innovations are critical for mining companies as they have granted access to non-profitable deposits, and the cost of mining is rising as the easiest mines have already been exploited. Innovation is even more strategic for Rio Tinto since it operates a 2,000-kilometer private railway network in the Western Australian desert, connecting its mines to its four private port terminals. The mining group has increased production rates by automating and now transports nearly a million tonnes of iron ore every day.

Chris Ware, the head of digital transformation at Rio Tinto, says logistics is crucial in the iron ore industry, and the company has lost count of the percentage of its autonomous dump trucks, which exceeds 80%.

Located near Perth airport, 150 operators take turns night and day to manage all mining operations from this center, which is 1,500 kilometers away from Gudai-Darri. The operators are organized into islands within a glassless room. In the center of the room, a dozen supervisors determine the load plans and movements of the robot trucks and trains, following a stream of data on their numerous screens.

The objective is to minimize any potential conflicts between the mine, the train, and the final destination, which include considerations such as ore quality, railway congestion, and technical issues with the crushers. According to Chris Ware, this is crucial in ensuring smooth operations throughout the chain. Rio Tinto takes pride in its efficient practices, to the extent that even the European Space Agency (ESA) has visited to learn from its methods. Furthermore, the “Pilbara blend,” which is the reference quality for iron ore, is produced by combining ore from eight different mines, including Gudai-Darri. The order in which the trains are unloaded at the port of Dampier, located on the north coast of Western Australia, determines the blending.

Rio Tinto openly admits that automation has reduced the number of workers at its mining sites. Chris Ware confirms this in the Perth control center, stating that “a single operator oversees about twenty autonomous trucks” while pointing at a monitor with small yellow rectangles indicating the current route of the Gudai-Darri dump trucks. This is in contrast to the past, where four drivers were required for each vehicle.

Automation has significantly reduced the number of on-site employees at Rio Tinto, a fact that the company openly acknowledges. In contrast to the Pilbara camps, it is easier to find new recruits to work in Perth, a calm capital with a population of two million. The savings are substantial, with base salaries exceeding 100,000 Australian dollars in the Western Australia mines, which is more than what an engineer earns in Perth and two to three times higher for senior positions. The mining sector’s boom, which the local economy heavily relies on, has exacerbated labor market tensions. Since Covid, immigration restrictions have disrupted the influx of new immigrants. However, Shaun Jessop, Rio Tinto’s digital manager, assures that employees are still required on-site to supervise the robots and perform maintenance tasks. At Gudai-Darri, nearly 400 fifo employees are permanently stationed at the mine. They fly in and out of their living base every week from Perth or even further, working six days in a twelve-hour rotation, followed by six days off.

One billion liters of fuel per year

The base, which consists of bungalows surrounded by lush green lawns, has facilities such as a swimming pool, two sports halls, and a music hall to take care of its employees. According to Zach Jones, who has been visiting almost all the camps in the region for twelve years as a security team leader, it is one of the most comfortable places to stay in the Pilbara.

“Undoubtedly, the profession has changed for the better. Nowadays, tablets are replacing paper procedures, and more things are managed remotely,” he explains, pleased with his new position that allows him to spend more time in Perth.

Jeff’s viewpoint differs from that of those working in the Perth control center. Stationed in his cramped cabin that hangs in mid-air, he oversees the iron ore being dumped into the bulk carrier, destined for China like the majority of the four ships docked there. Despite being covered in dust, Jeff is quite rugged, but he does have some regrets.

“When Perth didn’t control everything, we had more variety in our work,” he says.

Nevertheless, his job is one of the few that have not been automated in the port, as it is too intricate for a robot. To ensure that the cargo is appropriately distributed in the ship’s compartments and avoid capsizing, he has to verify it manually.

While automation has made significant strides at the Gudai-Darri mine, robots have not yet taken over all tasks. A digital twin, located at a training mine in south Perth, helps with maintenance and training. However, more complex tasks, such as the movements of loaders and excavators, are difficult to model, according to Heather-Mae Cassidy, the Head of Vehicle Automation. To improve safety, Rio Tinto is testing a radio-controlled bulldozer, with drivers operating from virtual cockpits in air-conditioned offices. Paul Maney, the screener manager, monitors engineers testing a robot dog, Spot, from Boston Dynamics, which hops under conveyors to detect cracks with a thermal camera. While there is still much work to be done, automation efforts continue to progress at Gudai-Darri.

Rio Tinto’s automation efforts are critical in their aim to decarbonize and reduce emissions.

“You cannot decarbonize without automating because you need consistency to anticipate battery duration,” explains Shaun Jessop.

The mining company, which consumes 1 billion liters of fuel each year, has pledged to cut its emissions by 50% by 2030 and has allocated $7.5 billion towards that goal. A third of the consumption comes from diesel locomotives, which are maintained by Declan Boyham’s team in a large hangar in Karratha. In a year, four battery locomotives are set to arrive, and the team is testing the best configuration, possibly using the height difference between the mines and port to recover energy during braking to recharge the batteries. However, the challenge is far from over, as delays have plagued previous automation projects, such as the certification to run the robot train, which was scheduled for 2015 but only obtained in 2019.

All-round cooperation

Heather-Mae Cassidy, who manages the autonomous trucks, is facing similar questions now that she is responsible for their electrification. The Gudai-Darri mine is poised to become the world’s first to use electric dump trucks, which Caterpillar has recently tested over a short distance. However, even that is not a panacea.

“Towing the trucks uphill could be less energy-intensive, just like lengthening the conveyors,” enumerates the young woman.

Faced with the challenge, the mining giants are intensifying their cooperation efforts. Rio, BHP, and Vale have all joined the Charge On initiative, led by Austmine, the Australian equipment manufacturers’ federation. Vanessa Haberland, Austmine’s representative, who believes that the transition is simpler than in underground mines, acknowledges:

“Mining groups will not succeed if everyone reinvents the wheel.”

The transition has already begun. Ward Power, the utilities manager, is inspecting the 81,000 solar panels located near Gudai-Darri airport. This solar park, with a capacity of 34 MW, provides 80% of the mine’s power needs. A second park of the same size could be built next to it, and Rio Tinto has allocated $600 million to build a park three times larger near the Dampier port, which could save 30% of its current gas consumption. However, this solution does not completely solve the problem of charging electric trucks.

“It will require much, much more,” admits Ward Power, as dust swirls behind the last row of panels in the bush.