Self-Drive Trucks Now Working In Australia

Self-driving trucks have begun to hit the roads in the United States, but they’re already hard at work in Australia.

British mining company Rio Tinto has 73 autonomous behemoths transporting iron ore 24 hours a day in West Angelas, Australia, across four job sites, according to MIT Tech Review. The autonomous fleet is roughly 15% cheaper than one with human drivers.

The trucks, made by Japanese manufacturer Komatsu (pictured), weigh 416 tons and use a mix of GPS, radar, and laser sensors to navigate a site. Their job is simple: go to a load site, wait to be filled with iron ore, and then drive to another location. Komatsu estimates that their autonomous trucks have already hauled 1 billion tons of material, mainly in Australia and Chile.

Now Rio Tinto will expand the driverless truck program at its Pilbara iron ore operations, retrofitting Caterpillar trucks for the first time for automated operations.

Nineteen Caterpillar haul trucks at the Marandoo mine will be retrofitted with the so-called Autonomous Haulage System technology starting mid-2018 for completion by the end of 2019.

And another 29 Komatsu haul trucks will be retrofitted starting next year at the mining giant’s Brockman 4 operation. The program is scheduled for completion by mid-2019, allowing the mine to run entirely in driverless mode.

Robot and Humans Separate

The human team overseeing the robots work 750 miles away, according to MIT Tech Review, far from being able to physically take action should something go wrong.

Autonomous systems have been pitched to mining companies as a safer, cheaper way to operate their business. Mining sites are usually remote and highly regulated already, making them a stable training ground for robots, according to Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The fully automated mine has long since passed the days of concept and evolved into a reality,” Cole Latimer wrote in Australian Mining in 2015. “If the industry is to survive and grow, on this planet and elsewhere, total automation of many of the processes is the way forward.”

Caterpillar, an American Komatsu competitor, says its autonomous trucks provide the same work as a skilled truck driver no matter where the site is located, meaning mining companies don’t need to worry about the quality of local labor in remote mines. The company also points to the trucks’ ability to alert mine staff the second it notices any abnormalities on the site.

However, the fact remains that these machines are replacing well-paying jobs. And mining certainly isn’t the end. While the work sites can be more complex, construction is also fertile ground for automation. Construction inspection might be a first step towards automation in the field, like automatically assessing railway tracks or using drones for building inspections.

“If you look at where we were just three years ago compared to where we are today in construction,” Komatsu America senior project manager Jason Anetsberger tells Construction Dive, “the trajectory trend is clear for increased automated capability.”

Driverless and Robots Going Forward

Mining company Rio Tinto has 73 of these titans hauling iron ore 24 hours a day at four mines in Australia’s Mars-red northwest corner. At this one, known as West Angelas, the vehicles work alongside robotic rock drilling rigs. The company is also upgrading the locomotives that haul ore hundreds of miles to port, the upgrades will allow the trains to drive themselves, and be loaded and unloaded automatically.

Rio Tinto intends its automated operations in Australia to preview a more efficient future for all of its mines, one that will also reduce the need for human miners. The rising capabilities and falling costs of robotics technology are allowing mining and oil companies to reimagine the dirty, dangerous business of getting resources out of the ground.

QZ:       The West:       Technology Review:

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