One of the autonomous Scania trucks being tested by Rio Tinto in its mining operations in Australia. Picture: SUPPLIED
One of the autonomous Scania trucks being tested by Rio Tinto in its mining operations in Australia. Picture: SUPPLIED

Trials of autonomous trucks for the road are continuing, but it’s likely that the mining industry may be among the first to use fully self-driving trucks.

Numerous trials have taken place over the last couple of years and we were even told that SA mining companies have been in discussions with at least one truck manufacturer. Despite efforts by us and the Business Day mining reporter, we’ve been unable to get any of the SA mining companies to confirm plans. That’s probably because the unions are unlikely to approve of the introduction of autonomous trucks but the reality is that they will come; it’s just a matter of when.

Elsewhere in the world, tests continue and the latest news out of Australia is that Rio Tinto is trialling autonomous Scania trucks in its Dampier Salt operations as part of its existing autonomous truck fleet.

The trial started in August 2018 using a Scania XT 8x4 self-driving tipper. Like trials of most autonomous vehicles around the world, a safety driver still has to be in the cab, just in case anything does not go according to plan.

“Mining sites, given their high vehicle utilisation rates are ideal for testing new autonomous technology,” says  Björn Winblad, head of Scania Mining. “The industry can reap the safety and productivity benefits of automation, and the experience gained here will be instrumental in developing fully autonomous solutions for other transport applications. It is very encouraging to note that the truck has been performing in a safe manner and in accordance with expectations with regards to the operations.”

That view is echoed by Rob Atkinson, the head of productivity and technical support at Rio Tinto. “We’re pleased to be trialling this technology in trucks that are smaller than our traditional haul trucks. This has the potential to give us more flexibility in the way we operate in a number of areas across Rio Tinto. We have seen automation create safer and more efficient operations in our business and this is a next step in evaluating options for delivering further improvements through the use of technology.”

The next phase of the trial will be to increase vehicle-to-vehicle awareness and intelligent fleet supervision. The company has also been moving ahead in other areas of automation, with the largest fleet of driverless trucks operating in other areas as well as the world’s first autonomous heavy haul long distance rail network.

Last year Rio Tinto began retrofitting a number of its Caterpillar and Komatsu large mining trucks at some of its mines to make them fully autonomous, saying that they would make a significant contribution to its $5bn productivity improvement plan. By the end of 2019, the company says it will have 130 autonomous trucks in operation, representing a significant 30% of its fleet.