World's Largest Robot Makes Its First Fully Autonomous Iron Ore Delivery

The cargo locomotive is part of a project that once completed will be the world's first fully autonomous, long distance, heavy-haul rail network.

Metals and mining corporation Rio Tinto announced last week that it had achieved a "significant milestone" by making the first iron ore delivery by a fully autonomous train considered to currently be the world's largest robot. The delivery took place in Pilbara, Western Australia on July 10 and is part of the firm's AutoHaul programme.

The world’s largest and longest robots

“The safe first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train is a key milestone for AutoHaul. The programme will deliver the world’s first fully autonomous, long-distance, heavy-haul rail network, operating the world’s largest and longest robots," said in a statement Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director Rail, Port & Core Services Ivan Vella.

The event saw Rio Tinto's special train carry about 28,000 tonnes of iron ore
over 280 kilometers from the firm’s mining operations in Tom Price to Cape Lambert port. The entire journey was monitored remotely by operators located in the company’s Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500 kilometers away from the train.

It is estimated that Rio Tinto spent $940 million to develop this self-driving three locomotive train. According to Lido Costa, principal engineer on the AutoHaul project, Rio Tinto's specialized trains are designed to make all decisions autonomously once on course.

"There is a train controller at the Operations Centre in Perth who sets the route. But once it's running the on-board computers and the computers at the Operations Centre take over and it makes its own decisions," said Lido.

Lido further explained that the network of computers ensures the train stays within speed limits, avoids collisions and bypasses any obstacles obstructing level crossings. The system also has measures in place to protect people on board and equipment. 

The world's first autonomous heavy-haul rail network

AutoHaul's team has developed their advanced locomotive technology through thousands of hours of tests and expects its project to be fully operational later this year. If successful, the project will be "the world's first fully autonomous, long distance, heavy-haul rail network."

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Lido believes this switch from manually operated trains to fully autonomous ones will increase both productivity and safety. For starters, driverless systems remove the need for constant stops to change conductors.

"The time-saving benefit is enormous because the train network is a core part of the mining operation. If we can prevent those stoppages, we can keep the network ticking over, allowing more ore to be transported to the ports and shipped off more efficiently," said Lido.

Changing drivers is also a high-risk activity that can now be avoided further eliminating a safety risk. Vella emphasized that the firm is working with the drivers in implementing these transitions securely. 

“We will continue to ensure our autonomous trains operate safely under the wide range of conditions we experience in the Pilbara, where we record more than eight million kilometers of train travel each year. We are working closely with drivers during this transition period as we prepare our employees for new ways of working as a result of automation," concluded Vella.

Via: Rio Tinto