By Lauren DeLorenzo, Assistant Editor, Mining Magazine

Drones, robotics and autonomous vehicles have been sparking innovative solutions in the mining industry for years. Rio Tinto’s most technologically advanced iron ore mine in the Pilbara has taken this to a whole new level – boosting safety, energy efficiency and output, and paving the way for mines of the future.

While the industry is typically slow to adapt to change, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent supply chain challenges have accelerated the need to reimagine how the industry operates.

Now more than ever, miners are looking to new technologies and digital solutions to transform their operations into a more robust, energy efficient and productive system, with 90 per cent of mining leaders wanting to increase IT investment in 2022, according to an Equinix report.

An unprecedented use of innovative technologies underpins Rio Tinto’s most advanced mine in the Pilbara – the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine.

Previously known as Koodaideri, Gudai-Darri is Rio Tinto’s first greenfield mine in more than ten years. The mine is expected to become an important pillar in the future production of the company’s Pilbara Blend product in the region. Gudai-Darri has an expected lifespan of more than 40 years and an annual capacity of 43 million tonnes once it reaches peak operation.

After opening in June 2022, the mine aims to improve product mix from the Pilbara and drastically increase production volumes, and is expected to reach capacity in 2023.

Developing the mine

Development for the Gudai-Darri mine began in 2019, supporting over 3,000 jobs in the construction and design phases, and establishing around 600 permanent jobs for the mine’s operation.

Rio Tinto’s initial $2.6 billion investment was disrupted by supply chain issues and COVID-19-induced labour shortages, leading to a $4.3 billion increase in capital cost estimates. The mine is located on land belonging to the Traditional Owners, the Banjima People, and Rio Tinto said it consulted with them and with the Yindjibarndi People through the planning and development stages of the mine.

Rio Tinto’s Chief Technical Officer, Mark Davies, said, “The safe and successful delivery of Gudai-Darri, in the midst of a global pandemic, is testament to the resilience and hard work of thousands of Rio Tinto employees and contractors, including a range of local Western Australian suppliers, as well as Pilbara Aboriginal businesses.

“In building this new hub, we have brought together the best of our innovations, including autonomous trucks, trains and drills, as well as the world’s first autonomous water trucks, to make Gudai-Darri our most technologically advanced iron ore mine.

“This suite of autonomous assets complements the planned deployment of other leading-edge technologies including a robotic ore sampling laboratory, field mobility devices for all personnel and a digital asset of the fixed plant, which, together with data analytics, will make Gudai Darri safer and more productive.”

During the construction phase, a total of $3.2 billion in resources was sourced, with $1.5 billion in contracts awarded to Western Australian registered businesses. These included NRW, Primero, Southern Cross Electrical Engineering and DTMT Construction Company.

Contracts were also awarded to local Aboriginal businesses for the construction and development of the mine, including White Springs, Lorrex Contracting, Hicks Civil and Mining, Brida, Karijini Development, Yurala Contracting Services and Karlka FenceWright WA.

The mine’s delivery required moving more than 20 million cubic metres of earth, the batching and placement of 35,000 cubic metres of concrete, the installation of 10,000 tonnes of steel and more than 14 million work hours in total. But all of that investment into the mine is expected to pay off with high volumes of output.

Gudai-Darri is expected to contain a total of 561 million tonnes of reserves, graded at 61.8 per cent iron, including 186 million tonnes of proven and 275 million tonnes of probable reserves. Conventional truck and shovel open-pit mining is used at the mine to extract the ore at appropriate bench height.

Ore removed from the mine undergoes dry-crushing in-pit before being conveyed to the central processing facility and transported to the port for export.

Four Cat autonomous drills, dozers, graders, loaders, water carts and shovels make up the mine fleet, with iron ore grade controlled by blast hole data. A feasibility study is currently underway for the expansion of the mine, and technological advances are set to help operations ramp up to peak capacity in 2023.

Full year shipments guidance for 2022 is estimated to be between 320 and 335 million tonnes, depending on risks associated with the ramp-up of new mines, weather and management of cultural heritage.

Autonomous vehicles, trains and drills

Australian miners are already driving major changes in this area, using the most autonomous mining trucks of any country in the world. In fact, between May 2021 and May 2022, the number of autonomous haul trucks in operation globally rose by 39 per cent.

The Gudai-Darri mine is no exception. The mine aims to follow the guidelines set out in Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future strategy, which connects all aspects of the mining value chain and advocates for increased use of automation and digitisation. The strategy focuses on a holistic approach to improving recovery practices, efficiency and safety practices.

Gudai-Darri uses advanced data analytics in conjunction with automation to reduce environmental impacts and improve safety. The mine uses autonomous 793F trucks, which are fitted with Caterpillar’s autonomous haulage system, Cat Command.

The trucks can provide real-time ore tracking, using sensors to show live dig face progression. There are almost 200 autonomous 793F trucks in service across the Pilbara, equipped with Cat Command for hauling.

Rio Tinto is working with Caterpillar to continue to develop zero-emissions autonomous haul trucks, and aims to deploy the trucks at Gudai Darri once the technology is fully developed. The mine also uses driverless, heavy-haul, long-distance trains to transport iron from the mine to the port at Cape Lambert.

First beginning operations in June 2019, the autonomous trains were the first of their kind in the world, operating along a new 166km railway line that connects to the existing network. The trains’ AutoHaul system allows for remote monitoring by operators in Rio Tinto’s Perth Operations Centre, more than 1,500km away from the mine.

In addition to the autonomous haul trucks and trains, the mine also uses the world’s first autonomous water carts, developed in partnership with Caterpillar. These carts are mainly used for on-site dust suppression.

Intelligent digital systems on board the carts can monitor and detect dry and dusty conditions on site, and trigger when water is used on roads to maintain their condition. The digital tracking of these conditions will help the mine monitor water consumption and reduce waste.

Autonomous drills, filled with monitoring systems, will also keep track of existing conditions. These drills contribute to data-informed modelling, which can give operators a more accurate assessment of ground conditions and help identify potential safety measure improvements.

Robotics for sampling and heavy mobile equipment

The mine makes use of advanced robotics for its iron ore sampling laboratory, which is fully automated and integrated with the mine.

The lab processes production samples in both lump and fine forms, providing ore grade visibility within minutes. The samples enter through a conveyer from the sample station. The samples are then transferred to the automated production cell by a robot. The laboratory will provide much better visibility of the stockpiled iron ore on site, allowing for better monitoring and assessment.

Robotics will also be critical in the heavy mobile equipment (HME) warehouse. Four automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) will autonomously handle pallet frames, reducing the amount of manual handling required and improving safety for workers.

The robots use laser obstacle scanners and auto-stop functions to move around the warehouse by themselves.

Another piece of advanced equipment in operation at the mine is Rio Tinto’s first rotable bucketwheel reclaimer. Typically, several reclaimed components need to be removed and replaced regularly for maintenance.

This means that there is a prolonged shutdown period while the components are taken out. The rotable reclaimer, however, will allow for the entire bucket wheel module to be changed out for maintenance, meaning that efficiency and safety are improved.

Digital twins and real-time, paperless monitoring

Gudai-Darri operators and workers have access to real-time data through tablets, enabling them to go paperless and access the most up-to-date information about the mine. The tablets allow them to more easily communicate between teams, and to access the key applications they need in the field, helping to streamline systems and eliminate the need to travel between sites.

Digital technology is key to monitoring the mine, and a number of data analytics capabilities have been implemented to streamline processes and improve efficiencies. These capabilities include control loops to optimise production and reduce downtime.

For the first time Rio Tinto is leveraging a full digital replica of the processing plant to further its safety measures and allow workers to get a more complete understanding of the site’s operations. With this technology, workers can access a digital replica of the processing plant in real time.

A remotely monitored digital twin of the mining site will enable the team to visually navigate the site, planning their work to scale and allowing them to view or download associated technical data and documents. The digital twin has a predictive component, and allows teams to test different situations before they are implemented, saving time and resources.

This digital twin will provide a highly detailed and interactive 3D environment for virtual reality training, making training safer and more efficient. These autonomous assets are remotely monitored from the Rio Tinto Operations Centre, which is located in Perth – over 1,500km away.

Solar farm to power operations

One of the most significant energy efficient aspects of Gudai-Darri is the solar farm operation in the Pilbara which will power the mine.

The solar plant aims to power one third of mining operations after its completion in August, providing all of Gudai-Darri’s electricity demand during peak solar power generation times. The plant aims to provide 65 per cent of the mine’s averageelectricity demand.

The farm will consist of approximately 83,000 solar panels with photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into energy. With 35MW of capacity, the facility is expected to reduce the mine’s carbon dioxide emissions by 90,000 tonnes per annum. Rio Tinto estimates that this is equivalent to taking about 28,000 cars off the road.

The solar farm will eventually be joined by a 45MW/12MWh big battery, which will act as a “virtual synchronous machine” and eventually allow the network to operate on 100 per cent renewable energy. The solar farm is connected to the Rio Tinto grid with an overhead powerline and fibre-optic link.

Rio Tinto also plans to develop a one gigawatt solar and wind farm in the Pilbara to power the mine. The facility is expected to be seven times bigger than Western Australia’s largest solar farm. Rio Tinto is conducting further studies to assess future opportunities to implement more sustainable energy sources in the Pilbara.

Creating a mine of the future

Western Australia’s Minister for Mines and Petroleum and Energy, Bill Johnston, said that the Gudai-Darri mine represents a “prototype of the mine of the future”.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive, Simon Trott, echoed these thoughts, and said that the company was looking forward to the changes advanced technology is expected to bring.

“Gudai-Darri represents a step-change in the deployment of automation and technology within our iron ore business and a fantastic demonstration of the talent, ingenuity and capability that exists in Western Australia, a region which is now known globally for its technical excellence and innovation,” Mr Trott said.

“Gudai-Darri’s combination of data and analytics, machine learning and automation, will make this mine safer and more productive.”


Leave a reply

©2024 Mining. All rights reserved


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?