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Automation Design and Control – Autonomous and Remote Operation Technologies in the Mining Industry

An excerpt from Rio Tinto’s research report discussing the Benefits and Costs by Brian S. Fisher and Sabine Schnittger.


Fundamentally there are two sources of economic growth: increasing the use of inputs such as labour, capital, land and other natural resources such as minerals; or increasing the productivity of those inputs. Over the past century most of the economic growth has been derived from improvements in productivity, that is, improvements in output per unit of input. The ongoing revolution in technology has been crucial in making these productivity improvements possible.

Humans have been mining for at least 40 000 years. Two thousand years ago the Romans developed large scale hydraulic mining methods for use in alluvial gold deposits in Spain. They also developed underground mining techniques. Despite the long human history in mining and the ongoing development of new techniques mining has in the past typically involved much hard labour in often difficult and dangerous work environments.

This report was commissioned by Rio Tinto with the aim of exploring the likely future impacts of automation and other new technologies in the mining industry. Improvements in technology have the potential not only to extend the life of mines and thus increase returns both to the miners and the community more broadly but also to make mining safer for those who work in the industry. This report explores those potential impacts as well as the possible impact of new techniques in mineral exploration.

Dr Brian Fisher

Innovation and autonomous technologies in the mining industry

Given rising demand, competitive pressures and a range of other challenges facing the industry, mining companies have increasingly focused on a process of ongoing innovation and the deployment of new technologies. A number of large mining businesses around the world are known to be investing in and trialling automated technologies, although much of this effort remains commercial-in-confidence and is therefore not in the public domain. Rio Tinto has adopted the most high profile strategy geared toward increased mine automation, and many of the innovations described below are based on reports about or by that company.


Most innovations developed over the past century were reliant on guidance by a human operator, but this is rapidly changing with the development of remotely operated and autonomous mining equipment. Today, automation is widely seen as a major step change that must be achieved by the mining industry in order to meet the many and various challenges described above. These technologies represent a broad class of innovations that involve a step-change in the R&D effort and are likely to profoundly change how minerals are mined and processed in the future.

Case studies of remote and autonomous systems

The following sections describe applications of automation technologies that are currently being trialled or have already been implemented. They span the range from automated subsystems of broader processes, such as sampling, rockbreaking, ship loading and transportation activities, to mines with a significant degree of remote control and automation, such as the Kiruna and El Teniente mines, to highly automated and integrated systems such as Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’.

Automated subsystems and processes

Underground mining: Rapid Underground Development

Rio Tinto is working with machine manufacturers to develop a new class of tunnelling machine (Smith 2010, 2011). These machines are designed to extract 75,000 to 100,000 tonnes per day of deep lying ores in a block caving system where a grid of tunnels is created beneath an ore body.9 Conventional ways of forming shafts and drifts through rock via drilling and blasting is inherently slow, may make the orebody unstable, and give rise to a number of safety risks.

The need for these machines arises because of the tremendous effort involved in bringing such mines to operation. Around three to four kilometres of vertical shafts and 50 to 75 km of tunnels must often be developed before large block cave mines start production. The life of such mines can range from 20 to 40 years, and may require a further 100 to 250 km of tunnels to sustain production. An increase in the development rates for sinking vertical shafts and developing horizontal passages can then significantly reduce costs. A further consideration is the depth and associated risks to personnel of such mines, so that remote and autonomous operations increasingly become a necessity. Three prototypes are currently under development:
. Herrenknecht’s Shaft Boring System for sinking large diameter shafts. This machine will carry out tunnelling and supporting operations simultaneously and will create shafts at twice or three times the rate of conventional drill and blast techniques.

. Two advanced tunnelling machines. Aker Wirth’s Mobile Tunnel Miner can excavate rectangular, circular or horseshoe cross-sections using around half the energy per excavated cubic metre of rock compared to conventional cutters. The machine additionally undertakes required supporting activities such as shotcreting and rockbolting, meshing, laying a second layer of concrete, and then directing the excavated material to the mouth of the conveyor. Atlas Copco’s Modular Mobile Mining Machine can advance at a rate of at least 12 m per day, compared to rates achieved with conventional equipment of 83 m per month. This machine similarly carries out the range of supporting activities.

9 Block caving is a mining technique that drives mine shafts below the ore body to create a void into which the fractured ore body is collapsed for removal. This technique precisely targets the ore body and eliminates the substantial cost of removing the overburden, but also requires an advanced understanding of rock mechanics.

Drilling and blasting: Semi-autonomous drills and ‘smart’ explosives trucks

Rio Tinto operates three largely autonomous drills at the West Angelas mine site in late stage pilots (Hooper, 2010). Drills are directed to the bench where blasting will take place from operators located in an automation control vehicle a distance away. The drills then switch to autonomous mode to drill the blast holes, and collect real-time data to generate an enhanced map of the bench. These drills can accurately pinpoint each drill location, and use automated levelling technologies to enable true vertical holes to be drilled. Optimised blasting is subsequently achieved using an intelligent explosives loader. These technologies reduce health and safety concerns and combine several advantages that improve the efficiency of drilling and blasting operations:


  •  a more efficient recovery of the orebody by reducing the amount of waste that is created and greater fragmentation of the blasted rock;
  • more consistent and predictable outcomes from precision drilling and blasting, requiring no redrills and lowering the use of consumables such as explosives; and
  • a more productive workforce as a result of the remote operation of several drills simultaneously.

Ore hauling: Autonomous trucks

Rio Tinto currently operates five autonomous trucks developed in partnership with Komatsu, also at the West Angelas mine (Hooper, 2010). These trucks (as well as all other vehicles at the site) have on-board computers that inform them of the position of other vehicles and communicate with the computer systems at the OC. Trucks are fitted with radars, lasers, communication antennas and high precision GPS to operate communications, guidance and avoidance systems. These systems enable trucks to use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically:


  • navigate haul roads and intersections;
  • move within the loading and dumping areas;
  • enter the tie-down area for refuelling; and
  • interact with manned equipment such as excavators, graders, bulldozers and light vehicles.

Rio Tinto plans to increase its autonomous truck fleet to 150 by 1015 (Freed (AFR), 2011).

Driverless trucks are also being tested by BHP Billiton at its New Mexico coal operations, while FMG reportedly plans to use driverless trucks at its Solomon mine.

Ore processing: Remote controlled rock breaker and run-of-mine bin

This is a collaborative research project undertaken by Rio Tinto, CSIRO and equipment manufacturer Transmin to established the feasibility of a remote controlled rock breaker at the West Angelas iron ore mine (CSIRO 2009). The rock breaker is used to smash oversized rocks, which are prevented from entering the crusher because of their size, and are dumped into the ore receptacle or ‘run-of-mine bin’. In conventional operations, an on-site operator identifies an oversize rock with the naked eye and uses a wireless remote-control pack to determine the most effective way to break the rock.

The new remotely controlled technology enables the operator to be based at Rio Tinto’s OC in Perth. The remote rock breaker system combines virtual reality and actual reality images, which the operator can access as required to direct the operations of the machine. The choice of interface was determined by conducting a number of human factor studies to find the most acceptable and productive. Remote operation of this process has a number of advantages:

  • relocating operators to the OC and away from the mine site enables them to perform their work in a safer and cleaner environment;
  • instead of requiring a dedicated operator per rock breaker, operators can operate one or more rock breakers simultaneously;
  • the technology reduces the number of workers on site and thereby the number of flyin fly-out personnel and associated pressures on site accommodation; and
  • reduced crusher downtime resulting from delays in deploying plant operators to the rock breaker area.

Product handling: Remote ship loading

The difficult and necessarily precise process of loading bulk carriers with iron ore is currently controlled by an operator from a cabin located at the end of the shiploader’s boom. A joint Rio Tinto/CSIRO team is currently developing the requisite technology for ‘extended’ teleoperation of the loading infrastructure (CSIRO 2009). Teleoperation of loading processes will then result in the operator working from a place beyond line-of-sight with video images of the operating area and access to additional sensors to monitor the process. These sensors deliver graphical displays of models of the loader that is synchronised with the real-time movement of the machine, information on proximity to the ship and other critical infrastructure, and profiles of the load in the hold.

Fully operational, this technology will deliver significant benefits in a range of areas; chief among these is the removal of human operators from a hazardous environment. The current location of operators potentially exposes them to a range of risks to human health and life, including as a result of exaggerated boom movements, accidents traversing the boom, unsecured movement of the moving platform, working at heights suspended over ship or water, collisions between the boom and other infrastructure on the port or ship, as well as exposure to wind gusts, heavy rain and dust. In addition, the technology overcomes a number of difficulties that currently limit productivity in manual operations:

  • the current inability of operators to see a hold’s interior;
  • the need to make stop/start decisions in the course of loading hatches to distribute the cargo correctly;
  • difficulties in moving the loading boom to the desired location over the hatch; and
  • the current inability of operators to measure a vessel’s trim directly.

Other benefits arise from improved reliability /sustainability of the operations. They include an extended machine lifespan as a result of smoother movements, reduced wear-and-tear associated with manual handling of equipment, and the benefits of boom ‘auto-positioning’ to compensate for any tidal drift in the ship and thereby maintain the correct over-hatch location.

Automated mining operations

Future mines will evolve around remote operations centres, and make extensive use of sophisticated technologies and intelligent systems to communicate with, monitor, direct and coordinate operations a long distance away (Bassan et al. 2008). Technology assisted workers will perform the jobs of two or three traditional roles, with only a skeleton workforce remaining on site. This vision is gradually being implemented as mines are being developed.

Kiruna iron ore mine

LKAB’s Kiruna iron ore mine in Sweden, considered to be the world’s largest, most modern underground iron ore mine, has used driverless underground trains since the 1970s (miningtechnology.com, 2011; Arvidsson, 2005; International Mining, 2008 and 2010). Kiruna is located in the extreme north of Sweden, far north of the Arctic circle, and has been mined both above- and below ground for more than a century.

Current mining operations take place at a depth of 1,045 m. The mine operates in a mixture of autonomous and remote control modes that rely on sensors and wireless communications throughout the mine and fibre optic cables connecting operators that are either located at a level of 775 m underground, some distance from the drilling surface, or in a control centre located in LKAB’s main office in the town of Kiruna:

  • electric-powered, drilling rigs and ore handling equipment are remote controlled;
  • remote controlled and in some cases autonomous LHDs carry the run-of-mine ore to the nearest ore pass, from which it is loaded automatically on a train;
  • seven remote controlled 500t-capacity shuttle trains collect ore from ten groups of ore passes and deliver it to one of four crushing stations; and
  • crushing, weighing, skip loading and hoisting are entirely automated.

The entire process is monitored and controlled from the central control centre in Kiruna, with some 15,000 measurement points covering everything from underground operations to ship loading in port. Operators can compare actual performance with production plans at any time. These arrangements have led to substantial labour cost savings, from 3,000 workers in 1983 to 1,800 staff in 2003, of which only around 400 were located in the mine itself.

The mine is currently undergoing expansion to a depth of 1,365 m, the seventh rail haulage level since late 1950 (Chadwick 2010). This new level will incorporate new advances in technology and automation, including:

  • automated drilling equipment with automated hammer and drill bit changes;
  • integrated monitoring and diagnostic systems for maintenance purposes;
  • the use of robots to charge explosives; and
  • automated electric LHDs.

Other innovations that have been introduced are equipment specifically designed and manufactured to resist wear and the impact of heavy iron ore materials for a minimum of 25 years. The loading chute has been made to extend the life of the structure and to enable the system to handle sticky/wet muck or large boulders. Similarly, rail cars are made from abrasion-resistant steel.

Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future™ program

The most ambitious plan for automation that has been announced publicly relates to Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’ program (CSIRO, 2009; Delabbio, 2011). The Mine of the Future project represents a concerted effort to automate all aspects of a mine, and is the result of a long process of collaboration between Rio Tinto, research centres around the world and key equipment suppliers. It follows full-scale trials of autonomous and remotely operated equipment such as autonomous haulage and drill systems at Rio Tinto’s ‘A Pit’ trial mine in 2009-10 and subsequently at West Angelas.

The Mine of the Future will combine the various innovations to deliver autonomous but fully integrated processes that are coordinated from a remote location. The application of these new technologies will enable a holistic view of all operations from mine to port and provide near real-time information as a basis for improved decision-making. Rio Tinto’s vision encompasses:

  • automated blast-hole drill rigs that will perfectly position every hole, conduct analysis during drilling, and dictate to the explosives delivery vehicle the explosives load and blend to be charged for each hole;
  • an excavator that can ‘see’ the difference between ore and waste in the muckpile, can separate the two, and will automatically load a driverless haul truck before dispatching it;
  • driverless haul trucks that safely navigate around the mine landscape to move waste and ore in a precisely optimised manner without human intervention, and that automatically report to workshops when maintenance is due;
  • remotely operated rock-breakers;
  • the use of advanced sorting machines that are capable of upgrading low grade ores and significantly extending mine life;
  • the incorporation of autonomous sensing equipment to fine-tune beneficiation and
  • other processes so as to maximise recovery and save on energy and water;
  • the operation of driverless trains that can ‘see’ beyond the horizon and deliver product to automated train load-outs;
  • ongoing coordination all mine operations from mine to port so that quality controlled, correctly-blended product arrives at port ready for shipment to customers;
  • on-site employees that undertake essential service and maintenance and are assisted remotely by experts a long distance away; and
  • a remote operations centre that oversees the entire integrated operation of the mine while experts constantly analyse and fine-tune processes and that enables the ongoing real-time update of knowledge about the orebody.

Rio Tinto is now in the process of rolling out its Mine of the Future. At its core is the OC located in Perth, which has been operational since 2009-10. The centre currently undertakes the remote monitoring of a number of significant assets and oversees full-scale trials of autonomous trucks, drills and ship and train loading operations. It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and is staffed with 200 controllers and schedulers, as well as more than 230 technical, planning and support staff (Rio Tinto, n.d.). The centre has been designed to control and monitor on a real-time basis Rio Tinto’s entire operations across the Pilbara, including (currently) 14 mines, 1,400 km of rail, three ports and power generation facilities at Dampier and Paraburdoo.

A number of advanced technologies enable the many monitoring, operational and planning processes undertaken by the centre, including the MATE™ technology described. A different but equally powerful technology, referred to as ‘VirtualEYES’ is a system that generates a virtual representation of operations on the ground in real time (Rio Tinto, n.d.). This system combines survey and weather data, aerial photos and vehicle telemetry, with information on mine design, geological models and infrastructure plans to simulate an accurate three dimensional representation of events at the site. VirtualEYES will enable the sharing of realtime information to improve problem solving and collaboration.

Research and investment in mining automation

Today, Australia is a global leader in research into mining automation (Durrant-Whyte 2010). Three main research centres currently undertake work in this area in Australia:10

CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) is Australia’s national science agency. It undertakes research across the range of activities in the minerals sector, including minerals exploration, mining, minerals processing and metal production.

CRCMining (the Cooperative Research Centre for Mining) is a research centre established by the Commonwealth Government with links to the University of Newcastle, the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australia and Curtin University, and supported by a number of mining businesses and equipment makers.11 The centre was established in 2003 with an initial $27 million in government funding, and subsequent funding of $12 million in 2009, and an estimated $100 million in funding from industry and university partners. CRCMining focuses on automation, equipment and power management, drilling processes to manage fugitive emissions in coal mining and rock fragmentation and handling.

The Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation (RTCMA), established at the University of Sydney in 2007 and funded by Rio Tinto with $21 million for an initial period of five years. It focuses on robotics, sensing technologies, data fusion and systems engineering. RTCMA is one of a number of research centres with links to universities funded by Rio Tinto (Roberts,2011):

  • the Rio Tinto Centre For Underground Mine Construction in Canada, which focuses on rock mechanics, geotechnical rock mass modelling, mechanical excavation and underground construction techniques;
  • the Rio Tinto Centre for Materials & Sensing, based at Curtin University in West Australia;
  • the Rio Tinto Centre for Advanced Mineral Sorting at the University of Queensland, which undertakes research in the areas of mineral excitation, nondestructive sensing, mineral sorting classification and orebody classification; and
  • the Rio Tinto Centre for Advanced Mineral Recovery at Imperial College (London), where research focuses on the fundamentals of rock fracture and processes to improve the efficiency of mineral extraction.

While Rio Tinto and some other international mining businesses provide information about ongoing innovation and automation efforts, most, including most Australian businesses do not. It is therefore difficult to gauge overall trends in automation. What is clear however, is that information and communications technology (ICT) expenditure in the mining industry has increased rapidly in recent years, along with record levels of investment (Topp et al. (PC), 2008). ICT is important in all stages of mining activity, especially in the field of exploration and three-dimensional seismic surveys, but is also an essential requirement for the automation of many mining processes.

Whereas ICT expenditures have increased relatively slowly when investment has picked up in the past, ICT expenditures have grown rapidly over the past ten years (Figure 3-1). This trend is expected to continue with the increasing importance of automation and remote control in the mining industry together with other developments in telecommunications in the Australian economy in the future.

10 Internationally, Natural Resources Canada is similarly investing in research into mining automation in collaboration with the mining industry and equipment suppliers (Natural Resources Canada 2011). That research is particularly focused on narrow-vein and deep mining operations, much of which is undertaken at the CANMET-MMSL Experimental Mine, an underground facility for in-situ testing and research in a mining environment.

11 Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, BHP Billiton, Caterpillar Elphinstone, Computer Sciences Corporation, Herrenknecht Tunnelling Systems, Newcrest Mining, Newmont Mining, P&H MinePro Services, Peabody Energy, Sandvik, Wellard and Xstrata.

Sector-specific benefits

One key consequence of Australia’s position at the forefront of mining innovation, which also illustrates the longer-term potential for growth in specific sectors, is the emergence of an Australian mining technology services and equipment (MTSE) sector (Tedesco and Haseltine (ABARE), 2010). This sector mainly consists of small to medium-sized businesses employing 50 or fewer people and specialising in:

  • technology applications for exploration, mine development, mining, minerals processing, minerals handling and transport, and mining maintenance technologies;they include remote sensing, airborne and ground exploration technologies, exploration and mine planning software, remote control systems, protection systems and communications systems ;
  • equipment and machinery manufacture and supply, including of scientific and electronic equipment, but also heavy plant, machinery and equipment;
  • consulting services, such as surveying, geological, mining, geotechnical engineering, scientific research, laboratory and testing, environmental management, training and other services; and
  • contract services, including specialist on- and off-site service contractors.

The Australian MTSE sector is now a dominant presence in the global market for the supply and development of technology goods and services for the minerals industry. As technologies have progressed, the range of applications has also widened and a number of companies now supply industries beyond mining. Table 1 provides an overview of the broad characteristics of the MTSE sector in terms of global and export sales revenues, labour force and R&D expenditures. While the sector has historically grown at a similar pace as Australian minerals exports, the MTSE sector appears to have been relatively insulated from the effects of the GFC. 12 For instance, activity at hotels servicing capital cities and fly-in/fly-out operations has been strong, while hotel bookings and flight reservations elsewhere has often declined. Similarly, different parts of the manufacturing and construction sectors have benefitted, depending on sales to the mining industry.

MTSE businesses’ domestic sales were greatest in Western Australia (1.1 per cent as a share of state GDP), Queensland (1.1 per cent) and New South Wales (0.6 per cent). Over the past three years, exports were a main source of revenues for MTSE businesses in Queensland and South Australia; West Australian businesses mainly sold their products and services domestically. Major export destinations include Oceania, Africa, North Asia and Europe; less important destinations are North America, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Although the sector definitions used in individual studies differ, Tedesco and Haseltine (2010) cite a number of other sources that point to the growing contribution of the MTSE sector to the Australian economy:

  • Austrade (2008) estimated that in 2007-08 the sector generated $12 billion in annual sales, with $2.5 billion in export sales;
  • a study commissioned by Invest Brisbane (2008) estimated that the Queensland mining technology and services (MTS) sector generated $1.1 billion in sales revenue since 2006, accounting for a 26 per cent share of the Australian MTS sector;
  • HighGrade (2010) estimated that in 2008-09 the MTS sector generated $27.5 billion in annual sales and employed 82,725 people.

Implications for the benefits and costs of automation

The preceding discussion shows that, while the costs and associated wider challenges of automation in the mining sector are substantial, they are potentially far outweighed by the benefits they can deliver. Considered in isolation, step-change innovations can significantly reduce the risks to human health and safety, as well as delivering process and systems efficiencies, and environmental benefits. These benefits may help to counteract a number of the challenges currently facing the industry, including persistent skills and labour shortages, declining ore grades and more complex mining environments, and environmental challenges arising from the need to reduce emissions and impacts on natural resources. On a broader perspective, increased automation may sustain Australia’s longer-term competitiveness compared to a situation where Australia’s resource exports decline in importance relative to those from competitor nations with equally good or better resource endowments but fewer constraints.


Table 1. Comparison of selected MTSE sector estimates, Australia


Global sales revenue

Export sales revenue

Size of labour force

R&D expenditure


$ million

Av. annual growth rate (per cent) $ million Av. annual

$ million

Av. annual growth rate (per cent) $ million Av. annual

Full-time equivalents

$ million
























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