Rio Tinto talks up autonomous trucks, innovation cred

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Rio Tinto talks up autonomous trucks, innovation cred

'We're decades ahead of Google'.

Technological innovation means mining can no longer be epitomised by a sooty-faced man, "lamp in one hand, pick-axe in the other", according to Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh.

Speaking at a conference in London last month, Walsh highlighted the importance of technological innovation to Rio Tinto as a competitive differentiator against the miner's rivals.

The global company - which boasts 60,000 employees in over 40 countries - has in recent years jumped on emerging technologies through initiatives such as its Australian Mine of the Future program.

The project, deployed in the Pilbara mining region, includes 54 autonomous trucks (provided by Japanese company Komatsu); an automated drilling system; an automonous heavy haul, long distance railway system expected to be operational this year; and a central Perth-based operations centre hosting 400 employees who control the company's local ports, mines and rail systems.

Walsh said the Mine of the Future program was "completely changing the face of modern mining".

"We’ve got advanced robotics, remote-sensing and artificial intelligence. But most spectacularly, it’s operated from an operations centre 1500 kilometres away from the mines in Perth," he said.

"That’s the equivalent of operating a mine in Poland from your seat here in London."

Much of the operations centre is automated, Walsh said - a key theme in the Mine of the Future project.

Mid last year the miner hit a milestone when it increased its driverless truck fleet to 53 vehicles across four mine sites, after haulange demand jumped to more than 50 million tonnes of material in one year. It had taken the company more than four years to reach the first 100 million tonnes shifted.

Rio Tinto plans to eventually run a fleet of 150 Komatsu driverless trucks.

"You might have read about driverless cars? I tell you: we’re decades ahead of Google on autonomous cars," Walsh said.

"We already have 54 driverless trucks operating in the Pilbara – each one the size of a two-storey house. They have driven 3.9 million kilometres, equivalent to lapping the planet 100 times.

"Automation has gone further and faster than we’d ever have imagined. Not only is it reducing costs and raising efficiency, it’s also improved our health, safety and environmental performance."

Innovation has been a key focus for Rio Tinto in recent years.

It has inked partnerships with resource exploration and development company Chinalco in China as part of a joint innovation venture; with Imperial College and the University of Nottingham in Britain for robots and mineral processing technologies; and it also runs an innovation centre in India, which is currently working on 20 projects ranging from underground visualisation to drones.

"Innovation is not an optional extra. If you haven’t got innovation in your business, before long you’re not going to have a business. We’ve got to be pushing innovation at every level, including in schools," Walsh said.

He said organisations needed to avoid the temptation to turn inward when times are tough and resources light in order to ensure the economic benefits of innovation are realised.

"For businesses and governments, these are easy prescriptions to hear, and hard ones to execute, especially in times of scarcity. We are in an environment where it’s tempting to be parochial," Walsh said.

"That’s why every rush of globalisation also produces a wave of innovation. When the world looks out and collaboration increases, ideas emerge," he said, citing late 19th century inventions such as the car and telephone, and more recent emergents such as computers and the internet.

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