Not many people are aware that Australia is home to the world's largest robot, hiding in plain sight in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. And it's on the move.
In December, mining giant Rio Tinto – employer to many engineers involved in software, mining, electrical, geotechnical and other disciplines - announced the successful deployment of its $940 million AutoHaul program to its locomotive and rail network.
AutoHaul is sophisticated software that has made Rio Tinto's mining railways the world's first automated heavy-haul long distance rail network – "the largest robot in the world" according to the company.
The program has been used to automate trains transporting iron ore from Rio Tinto's 16 mines in the Pilbara to its four port terminals. The roll-out to the network took just eight months following approval from the national rail safety regulator to test the 'robot' in May.
It made its first loaded automated run in July and since then, the company has been ramping up the number of loaded driverless journeys – each around 800 km taking about 40 hours including off-loading. Rio Tinto announced it has now reached the one million-kilometre mark and completed deployment of the program.
The company operates around 200 locomotives on 1700 km of track. Every locomotive, according to Rio Tinto, has been automated except from the shorter Robe River line in the west of the Pilbara. Rio Tinto managing director rail, port and core services, Ivan Vella, said results thus far have been positive.
"It’s been a challenging journey to automate a rail network of this size and scale in a remote location like the Pilbara," he explained. "But, early results indicate significant potential to improve productivity, providing increased system flexibility and reducing bottlenecks."
The automated trains have on-board cameras that are monitored from a NASA-like operations centre in Perth, more than 1500 km away, while public rail crossings have been fitted with CCTV. Despite the automation, the company revealed there had been no forced redundancies and that it does not expect to make any in 2019.
Image via Rio Tinto.