What was once assigned to the realm of science fiction is proving a reality through Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul™ programme, with the company achieving significant milestone with the first delivery of iron ore in the Pilbara, Western Australia by a giant robot – an autonomous train.

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Rio Tinto forge ahead in creating world’s first heavy haul, long-distance autonomous rail operation

The train, consisting of three locomotives and carrying approximately 28,000 tonnes of iron ore, travelled over 280 kilometres from Rio Tinto’s mining operations in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert. It was monitored remotely by operators from Rio Tinto’s Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500 kilometres away.

The inaugural journey is a significant milestone for Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul™ programme and follows regulatory approval in May 2018. AutoHaul™ is on schedule to complete by the end of the year, unlocking significant safety and productivity gains for the business, as well as optimising the company’s iron ore system by providing more flexibility and reducing bottlenecks.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director Rail, Port & Core Services Ivan Vella said that the safe first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train was a key milestone for AutoHaul™.

“The programme will deliver the world’s first fully autonomous, long-distance, heavy-haul rail network, operating the world’s largest and longest robots.

“This programme symbolises both the pioneering spirit and innovative talents of many people across Rio Tinto and shows our absolute commitment to improving safety and productivity, as well as enabling greater flexibility across our operations.”

Mr Vella said that Rio Tinto will continue to ensure its autonomous trains operate safely under the wide range of conditions experienced in the Pilbara, where Rio Tinto records more than eight million kilometres of train travel each year.

Rio Tinto’s AUD$940 million AutoHaul™ programme is focused on automating trains transporting iron ore to Rio Tinto’s port facilities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Once commissioned, the network will be the world’s first heavy haul, long distance autonomous rail operation.

Rio Tinto operates about 200 locomotives on more than 1,700 kilometres of track in the Pilbara, transporting ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.

The average return distance of these trains is approximately 800 kilometres, with the average journey cycle, including loading and dumping, taking about 40 hours.

Locomotives carrying AutoHaul™ software are fitted with on-board cameras allowing for constant monitoring from the Operations Centre. All public rail crossings on the network are fitted with CCTV cameras and have been upgraded to the highest safety standards.

Lido Costa, principal engineer on the AutoHaul™ project, says the trains are indeed giant autonomous robots because once they are set on their course, they make all the decisions.

“There is a train controller at the Operations Centre in Perth who sets the route. But once it’s running the on-board computers and the computers at the Operations Centre take over and it makes its own decisions,” says Lido.

“The network of computers makes sure the train keeps to the speed limit, makes sure it doesn’t run into other trains or other trains don’t run into it, makes sure there’s nothing obstructing the level crossings. And there are a whole lot of other devices in place to protect people and equipment,” explains Lido.

The main advantages to spring from the shift from manually operated trains to a fully autonomous system is safety and productivity.