Mining major Rio Tinto will expand its autonomous truck hauling fleet by more than 50% at its iron ore operations in Pilbara region of Australia by 2019, as part of its $5bn productivity improvement program.

The company has signed deals with Caterpillar and Komatsu to retrofit its traditional trucks with autonomous haulage system (AHS).

Rio Tinto plans to deploy AHS system in 29 Komatsu haul trucks at its Brockman 4 operation, starting next year. After the deployment of the autonomous haulage system, the company is expecting its Brockman 4 operations to run in AHS mode.

Similarly, the company will retrofit AHS system in 19 Caterpillar haul trucks at the Marandoo mine. The retrofitting process will start in mid-2018 and complete by the end of 2019.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said “We are excited to be starting a new chapter in our automation journey with a valued long-term partner in Caterpillar and we are proud to be extending our successful partnership with Komatsu on this world-first retrofitting initiative.”

Following the deployment of the AHS, the trucks can be managed through a supervisory system and a central controller, without requiring drivers. With the technology, the trucks will have awareness about actual locations, speeds and directions of all vehicles at all times and can navigate on haul roads and intersections automatically, using pre-defined GPS courses.

The expansion of automated trucks in the iron ore operation is part of Rio Tinto’s $5bn productivity improvement programme.

Rio Tinto started using autonomous technology in 2008 and it operates six fully Autonomous Drill Systems (ADS) to drill production blast hole. It deployed first retrofitted Komatsu autonomous haul truck at Hope Downs 4 operation in September.

The company claims, each of Rio Tinto’s autonomous haul trucks operated an additional 1000 hours and at 15% lower load and haul unit cost than conventional haul trucks.

Automation drive is expected to help its iron ore business deliver an additional $500m of free cash flow per year from 2021.

Salisbury added: “The expansion of our autonomous fleet via retrofitting helps to improve safety, unlocks significant productivity gains, and continues to cement Rio Tinto as an industry leader in automation and innovation.”

“We are studying future additions to our autonomous fleet in the Pilbara, based on value, to help deliver our share of $5 billion of additional free cash flow for the company by 2021.”

In its Pilbara operation, about 20% of 400 haul trucks are currently AHS-retrofitted and following the completion of the project, about 30% of its fleet will be autonomous.

Image: The AHS-enabled trucks use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads. Photo courtesy of Rio Tinto.