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Australian mining company rolls out autonomous train system

Devin Jones   

Automation Automotive Automation mining

The AutoHaul project consists of 200 trains covering 1,700 km of track controlled from an operations centre in Perth.


Photo courtesy of Christian Sprogoe.

Australian mining corporation, Rio Tinto, has rolled out what it believes is the “world’s largest robot,” which happens to be a train.

The Pilbara rail network, named after the region in Australia where the company cultivates iron ore, is a fully autonomous system of trains controlled from the company’s remote operations centre in Perth.

“It’s been a challenging journey to automate a rail network of this size and scale in a remote location like the Pilbara, but early results indicate significant potential to improve productivity, providing increased system flexibility and reducing bottlenecks,” said Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director Ivan Vella.

Located in North Western Australia, Pilbara is known for its dry climates and red, clay-like earth, housing a variety of mineral deposits. Rio Tinto has roughly 200 trains running through the region, on 1,700 kilometers of track — transporting ore from 16 different mines to the four ports in the region.


For over a decade Rio Tinto has been tinkering with the automation of its production, developing the AutoHaul project in 2012, which acts as the backbone of the automated train network. According to Lido Costa, a principal engineer on the project, a controller at the operations centre in Perth sets the initial course. Once the train is moving, onboard computers, cameras and 2.4 terabytes of data generated every minute take over and dictate travel.

The $1.3 billion rollout took roughly eight months to complete and Rio Tinto acquired approval from the Australian National Safety Board in May of 2018 to test these autonomous trains, carrying out its first transport in July of that year.

Since the initial testing, the company has ramped up production, citing over a million miles of autonomous travel using the AutoHaul project. The average journey covers 800 kilometers and takes roughly 40 hours to complete.

Naturally, the AutoHaul project has railway unions disgruntled over the age-old concern of A.I creating human redundancies. But as of yet Rio Tinto states it hasn’t suffered from any forced redundancies and isn’t expected to make any in 2019.

In terms of future plans for autonomous travel, the company said back in March that it plans on rolling out additional autonomous hauling trucks to the Pilbara region, having hit their target of 100 at the end of 2018.


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