MELBOURNE, Australia–Driverless trains hauling iron ore across Australia’s arid Pilbara region were meant to transform the mining industry, until the technology proved much trickier than companies expected. But a successful test run by Rio Tinto PLC suggests the automation strategy may finally have shifted up a gear.
On Monday, Rio Tinto said it had completed a pilot run spanning nearly 62 miles with trains operated by individuals in an air-conditioned control room hundreds of miles away. The milestone puts it on track for a late-2018 commissioning of the so-called AutoHaul project, which has been dogged by software problems and repeated delays.
Until now, Rio Tinto’s trains have run about half of the miles across its Pilbara network in autonomous mode, albeit with drivers still on board to oversee operations.
Driverless mining vehicles promise greater efficiency for an industry that continues to target costs even as it pulls out of a tough few years in the wake of a slump in commodities prices.
Rio Tinto and others have bet hundreds of millions of dollars on being able to control trains, drill rigs and massive trucks from remote offices. Rio Tinto said it has already seen the benefits from AutoHaul in increased train speeds and fewer stops that have cut more than an hour from average journey times.
“This successful pilot run puts us firmly on track to meet our goal of operating the world’s first fully autonomous heavy-haul, long-distance rail network,” said Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s iron ore division.
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