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Mining giant will automate two thirds of truck fleet before Christmas

Komatsu driverless trucks
Komatsu driverless trucks

A multinational resources company will forge ahead with plans to replace most of its heavy vehicles with autonomous technology despite making a healthy profit.

Rio Tinto has already swapped more than half of its human-operated heavy vehicles and will continue to automate more trucks before the end of the year.

66 per cent will be automated

“We have continued investing in productivity and automation and are now seeing an improved effectiveness of our integrated system: Around 60 per cent of our truck fleet in the Pilbara is now fully autonomous,” the company said in its 2020 annual results.

“We have a pathway that will see around two thirds of the fleet being automated by the end of 2021.”

Cost savings

The proponent hopes the roll-out will save even more time and money through removing the need to pay truck drivers and wait for them to take breaks they are entitled to.

“We also experienced a higher mining work effort from longer haul distances, below water table mining and increased maintenance activity which we offset through productivity gains from increased automation and lower fuel prices,” it said.

Profit up 49 per cent

Rio made the announcement after reporting a net profit after tax of US$10.4 billion (A$13.4B) for calendar 2020, representing a 49 per cent increase on the previous year’s US$6.9B (A$8.9B) result.

The result was driven by strong iron ore demand from China throughout the year despite the worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) recession and the communist leadership’s ban on importing coal and a variety of agricultural commodities from Australia.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had a disparate impact on iron ore demand in 2020, where solid growth in China’s imports more than offset the contractions in all other regions,” the company said.

“China’s domestic iron ore supply expanded by around 20 million tonnes to around 290 million tonnes and helped meet record demand in 2020, as elevated iron ore prices incentivised some previously idled small-scale mines to restart operation during the second half of the year.”

Mixed result

The aluminium and bauxite division was not as fortunate, with the Yarwun Alumina Refinery in Central Queensland suffering heavy losses off the back of dwindling alumina spot prices.

“In 2019, our annual impairment assessment of the Yarwun cash generating unit (CGU) resulted in a pre-tax impairment charge of US$1.1B (A$1.4B) to property, plant and equipment as a result of this CGU being assessed on a standalone basis for the first time, and a 30 per cent year-on-year reduction in the spot price of alumina to US$275 (A$354.8) per tonne at 31 December 2019,” the company said.

Rio still believes the Gladstone region operation is “supportable” and plans to continue “closely” monitoring its performance.

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The proponent separately spent a total of US$333 million (A$429.5M) on introducing measures to help contain COVID-19 including screening, equipment hire, roster changes, temporary relocation and hygiene practices. It also introduced physical distancing, travel restrictions, team splits, flexible working arrangements and rapid screening.

“The group has delivered a good operational performance across most of our assets, catching up on planned maintenance activity in the second half of the year, particularly in iron ore, and continuing to adapt to new operating conditions as we learn to live with COVID-19,” the company said.

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