Rio Tinto's chief executive has said the company's heavy investment to automate surface mines with advanced IT systems will give it a clear edge over market rivals.

As the British-Australian mining group last month reported net annual profits had nearly trebled to $14.3 billion (£8.9 billion) – on the back of strong performance in emerging markets and rising commodity prices – chief executive Tom Albanese told investors: “Our investment in technology and exploration gives us competitive edge.”

“I’m a great supporter of investment in new innovative technologies through our Mine of the Future programme,” said Albanese. “We now have advanced programmes in a number of areas. Our focus ranges from exploration to rapid underground mine development, advanced mineral sourcing and autonomous equipment.

“We are now moving these technologies from proof of concept to pilot to implementation across our product groups.” The statement comes in direct support of a strategy change Rio Tinto effected three years ago, to eventually create the automated mines as a standard operational practice on surface sites.

In 2008, Rio Tinto established an advanced remote operations centre in Perth, Western Australia, to manage operations in mines up to thousands of miles away. Remote-control ‘intelligent’ trains, drills and trucks operate within the group’s iron ore mining operations, with Pilbara in Australia being the first site.

Pilbara uses FrontRunner trucks and IT control systems from supplier Komatsu. Artificial intelligence technology in the system learns the layout of the mine, how to recognise and avoid other vehicles and obstacles, and how to ferry loads around quickly and efficiently.

The Pilbara site is also testing high precision GPS, advanced wide area networking to improve machine control communication, and real time safety monitoring of personnel and equipment using proximity detection. Results are currently being analysed using what Rio Tinto said were “sophisticated modelling techniques”.

The “unprecedented” levels of automation would “revolutionise the way mining has been conducted for more than 100 years”, Rio Tinto said. “Employees will work like air traffic controllers. They will supervise the automated production drills, loaders and haul trucks from a remote operations centre in Perth.”

Albanese said this month that the operations centre had been a “resounding success”. Through the automated equipment trials Rio Tinto was bringing about “greater efficiency and lower production costs, as well as improved health, safety and environmental performance”, he said.

Rio Tinto’s focus on IT and related engineering has been a central element of its strategy. At the launch in 2008, Albanese claimed the company had a “three-year start” on the rest of the industry, which he said had “focused on discrete technologies rather than modernising the whole mine-to-port operation”.

In order to develop the Mine of the Future, Rio Tinto set up a Centre for Mine Automation, at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, investing AUS$21 million (£13 million) in the process.

Albanese vowed: “Humans will no longer need to be hands-on as all this equipment will be ‘autonomous’ – able to make decisions on what to do based on their environment and interaction with other machines.”

Photo: Tim Jarrett