“It’s been a challenging journey to automate a rail network of this size and scale in a remote location like the Pilbara”
The world’s first autonomous long-distance heavy load train system has successfully been fully deployed in Australia by mining giant Rio Tinto.
AutoHaul is a half a billion pound programme developed by the Anglo-Australian company that sees trains operate autonomously on a network of track covering 1,700 kilometers in Pilbara, a region in northwestern Australia.
The trains take 40 hours to cover an average distance of 800 kilometers; this time includes the loading and unloading of the vehicles. The AutoHaul project consists of 200 trains transporting ore from 16 mining facilities to four port terminals.
Rio Tinto monitors the trains from a central Operations Centre located in Perth which is over 1,500kms away from the mining network the trains operate in.
The first successful run of the autonomous trains was conducted in September 2017 when a train went from Wombat Junction to Paraburdoo traveling a distance of 100km. The trains used by Rio Tinto are on average 2.4kms long.
One of the key advantages in automating the system is the reduction of stoppages due to driver change-over. As one driver’s shift ends and another takes their place the train needs to come to a stop; on average the train stops for this reason three times a day, adding over an hour to the journey time. The elimination of driver cost is also a central advantage to the autonomous technology. However due to the technology still being in its early stages, a driver is still situated on board the vehicle to supervise the operation.
In order to facilitate the locomotives’ autonomous nature, all train level crossings on AutoHaul selected routes have been fitted with CCTV and Obstruction Detection Systems. If the detection system identifies an object on the line a warning is sent to the train control system and to the operating centre in Perth.
The train itself has an on-board computer built by German-based technology developer Kontron. The on-board computer doesn’t rely on the central control room to operate as it uses 3D maps and real-time data gathered from cameras and sensors. With this data the train can independently make decisions.
The on-board system maintains the train’s speed and makes sure it avoids collision with other trains and obstacles. Sensors on the train will detect if a fault occurs in any of the train’s mechanisms such as a faulty wheel or coupling system; if a fault is detected the train is brought to a halt.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore MD, Rail, Port & Core Services, Ivan Vella commented that: “The safe and successful deployment of AutoHaul™ across our network is a strong reflection of the pioneering spirit inside Rio Tinto. 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.”