Rio’s “Mine of the Future” project and Komatsu’s AHS technology seem a perfect match
By Tom Green
June 29, 2012
The Pilbara in Western Australia is an arid expanse of barren terrain the size of France. It’s home to the West Angelas open pit mine where millions of tons of iron ore are annually gouged up and then transported 24,000 tons at a time in mile-long ore trains bound for Cape Lambert, some 200 miles west on the Indian Ocean, for shipment even further west, mainly to the ever-hungry steel mills of China.
A win-win for robotics in the Pilbara
The Pilbara is also a huge open-air laboratory, where for the past three years robotic mining equipment has been put through its paces to see if it can stack up to the rigors and pace of high-volume ore mining. The experiment was orchestrated by the mine’s owner, Rio Tinto—the third-largest mining company in the world—which also owns fourteen other mines in the Pilbara (Pilbara region accounts for 70% of Rio’s $15.5B annual earnings (2011)).
The robot trials were part of a movement toward a future of autonomous mining in which Rio Tinto is investing $3.6 billion, the ultimate goal of which the company calls the Mine of the Future.
Starting in 2008 and concluding in February of 2012, a vanguard of nine robots—an excavator, track dozer, wheel dozer motor grader and five 930E-AT haul trucks—all supplied by Komatsu Ltd, underwent extensive field testing at West Angelas. The Pilbara robot trials were a real-world success. The most-watched machine was the autonomous, AT version of the Komatsu 930E, the best-selling off-road dump truck in the world—and now soon-to-be strategic hauling tool of choice for the Pilbara’s millions of tons of China-bound iron ore.
Rio Tinto is pushing forward with a full-scale, autonomous mine implementation, including $442 million for autonomous ore hauling trains over its rail network. Rio Tinto’s iron ore chief, Sam Walsh, predicts a positive outlook for medium to long-term iron ore demand to be driven by the Chinese, even with the current cooling of the Chinese economy.
Still the fastest growing economy in the world, Credit Suisse cut its estimate on China to 7.7 percent from 8 percent on June 14, while Deutsche Bank lowered its forecast to 7.9 percent from 8.2 percent (compare U.S. 2.3 percent for 2011). The predictions indicate the weakest growth since 1999 and compare with a 9.2 percent expansion last year (China: 11.9 percent, 1Q2010). Commodity analyst, David Lennox, Fat Prophets, sees iron ore still a strong Chinese import as the country works to meet the demands of its near-8 percent growth rate. Through it all, China remains both the world’s largest producer and largest buyer of iron ore. Good news for the Pilbara’s miners.
Rio Tinto, even with falling commodity prices and China’s declining growth rate, is targeting a 25% ramp up of all its Pilbara mine production over the next four years, to raise exports to 353 million tons per year (West Angelas produces 29.5 million tons per year), all of which will necessitate that robotics and autonomous mining must play an increasingly significant, if not a critical, role.
Komatsu, Ltd., which has a twenty-year working relationship with Rio Tinto and is the world’s second largest construction and mining equipment manufacturer (Caterpillar is the largest), is also a preeminent pioneer and the world’s leading manufacturer of robotic/autonomous mining equipment. In fact, it’s the only equipment manufacturer with autonomous vehicles actually working in real-world mining environments. Prior to the West Angelas mine, Komatsu had eleven 930E-AT autonomous haul vehicles at work in CODELCO’s copper mines in Chile.
Rio Tinto & Komatsu: perfect partners, perfect timing for robot success
In February, after a successful, three-year trial hauling waste products for nearly 900 days and over 350,000 miles, Komatzu’s five trucks were transferred to the nearby Yandicoogina mine were they will be joined by five additional driverless 930E-ATs for a full deployment. Rio Tinto has also ordered another 150 of the mega-size, off-road robots, at a cost of $6 million each, with delivery spread out over the next four years.
The 6-wheel, 200-ton behemoth, standing 24 feet high guzzles sixty gallons of gas an hour from its 1200-gallon tank (a gallon a minute!) while lumbering around at top speed of 40mph with its 320-ton payload. Each of the giant tires on the 930E-AT costs $40,000 apiece. To transform such a mega-machine into a driverless vehicle capable of operating efficiently and safely, virtually day and night in an open pit mine is an enormous undertaking and a great advance for robotic vehicles.