Mining companies have been using the same techniques for decades.
But today, this $1-trillion industry is undergoing major changes. More specifically, leading companies are beginning to integrate technology into their mining operations.
So much so, that someday – in the not-too-distant future – we may see mines operated without miners!
Indeed, new mining technology – like driverless trucks, pilotless trains, along with robots and drones – is on the way.
Rio Tinto Leading the Pack
Mining giant, Rio Tinto PLC ADR (RIO), is currently funding one of the world’s largest non-military robotics programs.
The first technology that it’s putting into action is driverless trucks.
At three of its mining operations in the Pilbara in Australia, Rio Tinto is already beginning to work with such technology.
In 2014, Rio Tinto will have 40 autonomous haul trucks (AHT) working at locations across Australia. They’re all controlled remotely from Perth, nearly a thousand miles from the mines. The vehicles use a combination of sensors to navigate around, primarily radar and GPS.
This is the first major deployment of an autonomous truck fleet anywhere in the world.
Rio Tinto began conducting trials with a robo-truck fleet of five in December 2008. Since then, the trucks have moved more than 130 million metric tons (mmt) of material!
The benefits are obvious: less staff, tireless drivers and fuel savings (think cruise control versus a human driver).
Driverless Truck Manufacturers
Rio Tinto may be leading the way on research for driverless mining vehicles. But obviously, someone is manufacturing the trucks for them.
The manufacturer in question is Japanese construction equipment company, Komatsu ADR (KMTUY).
It’ll produce an additional 150 units of the 930E FrontRunner for Rio Tinto, with each vehicle capable of carrying around 300 tons of ore.
The FrontRunners have a diesel-electric drive, similar to a locomotive. Komatsu is working in conjunction with General Electric (GE) to produce this engine and other next-generation mining equipment.
Rio Tinto isn’t alone in pursuing this technology.
Overall in the Australian mining industry, there are about 200 of these robo-trucks currently working hard in the mines.
One fellow Australian mining firm jumping aboard the technology train is BHP Billiton ADR (BHP).
The company formed an alliance with Komatsu’s main competitor, Caterpillar (CAT), to introduce an autonomous truck.
Caterpillar is not a novice here. The company’s 240-ton vehicle, marketed under the Cat MineStar trademark, has undergone testing since 2007.
BHP may use 15 of the vehicles at its operations in the Pilbara.
In total, there may be 45 Caterpillar autonomous trucks soon rolling across Australian territory, as other miners – including Fortescue Metals (FSUGY) – are also moving toward the use of robo-trucks.
This is just the beginning, too…
Of the world’s roughly 40,500 mining haul trucks currently in use, only 0.5% are driverless!
Now, driverless trucks are also only one of the technological changes coming to the global mining industry in the years ahead.