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Rio Tinto launches the world's largest robot in Pilbara

But go down the small ladder and open the modest cabinet, and you will find a mess of wires, printed circuit boards and other complex electronics that make up the Autohaul brain.

The company had to overcome unique regulatory barriers and several delays due to the complexity of the software.

Now hundreds of trains obediently pass through the oxide-painted ridges and salt marshes Pilbaras every day, transporting 1 million tons of Rio Tinto products from 16 mines to the port. Constantly under close surveillance of a remote operations center in Perth.

Ivan Vella, Managing Director of Iron Ore at Rio Tinto for rail, port and basic services, said that Autohaul had reflected the innovative spirit of the project team and assigned Silbara Autonomy to Pilbara.

“This is another reflection of the commitment to technology and innovation here at Pilbara and Washington,” he said at the official train launch at the company's 7-mile railway operations center near Karratha.

The safety of ore trains is in the public spotlight after the disastrous collapse of BHP last year, and although Rio Tinto wants to distance its new system from these comparisons, the industry will closely monitor Autohaul's safety record.

Autohaul has collision detectors, cameras and motion sensors scattered around the locomotive, and since the Rio Tinto’s 1,700-kilometer railway network is private, the railway tracks and level crossings have been upgraded to work in tandem with trains.

Each wheel weighs 500 kilograms.

Each wheel weighs 500 kilograms.Credit:Hamish hasti

The company said that all this makes an extremely safe machine, but unfortunately, the physics of stopping a fully loaded train mean that crazy kangaroos can no longer survive the collision with the front part of the locomotive, manned or not.

Mr Vella said he was “pleasantly surprised” by how well the trucking system works.

"When you start something like this, when technology is involved, you always expect that there will be some problems and reliability problems that you will have to face, and the deployment process went much smoother and much faster than we hoped," he said. .

“On an ordinary day, about 95 percent of our trains make their journeys without any impact.”

For more than a decade, automated trucks have been operating at some of the largest WA mines, and Autohaul is the next step to divert as many people as possible from risky mining operations.

This path has generated constant criticism from trade unions, who claim that mining companies are investing profits in people in their ruthless pursuit of efficiency.

The longest trip to Rio Tinto is Hope Downs 4 mine. It takes about 46 hours.

Motor transport means that you no longer need to change drivers on the road.


“The main advantage of Autohaul is that we avoid such driver changes,” said Mr. Vella.

“In aggregate, we save an average of one hour cycle time, which is initially the most significant part of a business case for Autohaul.”

Ironically, the software used by Autohaul was informed by the best drivers of the Rio Tinto train, but Mr. Vella said that the project did not mean the loss of jobs.

The company still housed drivers all over the network to respond to malfunctions, move trains as they pass through yards, and drive them along lines outside of road transportation.

Mr Vella said the project was never aimed at reducing jobs, but rather at eliminating bottlenecks and increasing network flexibility.

“It is very important to clarify that this project never concerned the loss of jobs and never allowed to save on labor,” he said.

The trucking of the train on the 7-mile railway Rio Tinto in Karrata.

The trucking of the train on the 7-mile railway Rio Tinto in Karrata. Credit:Hamish hasti

“It was about the effectiveness of our network and laying the foundation for how we can now use it.

"We are really starting to optimize our network."

So was it worth the money? Mr. Vella thinks so.

“It will take years to return investments of $ 940 million, but we are still very confident that we have invested,” he said.

Despite the tangible impact on jobs, the project received the full support of the State of Washington, which was excited by the prestige it had on the state in technological shares.

Washington State Mines and Oil Minister Bill Johnston said that there are more autonomous vehicles in Washington State than in California, where the real Silicon Valley is located.

“Road transport has brought the rail freight industry in this country to the 21st century and is rightfully the subject of global interest,” he said.

“I would also like to point out that the development of the world's largest robot is such a success thanks to the contribution of experienced engineers and innovative workers in Western Australia.”

Hamish Hasti is a business reporter for WAtoday.

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