Continuing development by Rio Tinto of remote control of its iron ore mining operations in the Pilbara is delivering significant productivity benefits.
Previously, most of the mining operations were managed on site with logistical processes segmented across key areas such as plant, rail network and ports.
Now, the various mining and logistical operations are increasingly managed from an operations centre located 1,500 km south of the Pilbara next to Perth airport.
The 1,800 sqm operations centre is connected to three different ports in the Pilbara via a series of fibre optic cables. Extra fibre and satellite connectivity provide further redundancy.
Over 500 personnel, including controllers, schedulers, and technical planning staff are brought together at the centre where there are 325 PC work stations which are divided into pods to monitor and manage a range of operations.
Dual electrical paths are provided to all IT equipment, and all IT loads are backed up by a 300kVA/240kW (per unit) uninterruptible power supply. Some 4,800 control network points are connected by 79 km of Cat6 and 22 km of fibre optic network cabling.
Five physically diverse fibre optic cable connections have been installed to three separate telecommunications carriers in case one goes down. These provide 224 MB of ATM backhaul communications capacity from Perth to the Pilbara, 10 GB connections in the Perth metropolitan area, and a permanent 6B satellite segment connection.
A fully redundant IP radio system with 34 touch panel controls and a supporting Tetra digital trunk radio solution is provided to allow operators to have fully secure radio mobility in and around the operations centre site.
Two 15m x 2m automated video walls made up of twenty 70-inch large panel rear projection monitors have also been installed to provide personnel with the big picture of operations in real time.
From this huge display, and from smaller duplicated monitors around the operations centre, operators can instantly see stockpile levels at port or mine plants through live closed circuit TV feeds, as well as ore quality, the progress of loading trains or ships, and the time the next ship or train arrives.
Rio Tinto's operations centre features fully automated electric lighting and day-lighting control that combines the benefits of daylight with the glare requirements of the control centre environment.
This high tech operations centre also boasts fully automated electric lighting and day-lighting control that combines the benefits of daylight with the stringent glare requirements of the control centre environment.
In addition, an underfloor displacement air conditioning system provides low energy cooling and massive outside air supply.
Key functions of the operations centre include pit control and mine care, crushers and plant control, train control and scheduling, port operations and scheduling, and control of power stations and network.
If power goes down due to adverse weather, power network controllers communicate with the scheduling team to establish what the most critical operations are with a view to restoring them in order of priority.
There is a strong focus on standardisation and integration. Due to the similarities of sites controllers are typically able to control two different sites, and potentially more as skill sets further develop.
If necessary, operators can override automated processes by remotely operating the machinery from their desk, such as via control sticks for train loading or via their screens for plants.
A remote online monitoring system has been introduced to determine asset health and send data, such as oil pressure levels, from the mining equipment to prevent potential maintenance failures.
A new GPS system has also been developed which enables the operating centre to track the movement of workers onsite, thereby providing a safer working environment.
Fully autonomous mine
Rio Tinto recently launched its first fully autonomous mine in the Pilbara. According to the company's spokesman, the Yandicoogina mine has been designated as the 'Mine of the Future', to be eventually fully autonomous with trucks, trains and drilling rigs managed remotely out of the Perth operations centre.
"At the operations centre there is a big emphasis on improving efficiency by closely integrating different parts of the business, eliminating or mitigating bottlenecks that previously restricted production and throughput," he said.
"In the operations centre we can now better plan and activate tactics to, for example, prioritise certain technical specification grades of ore that are required for blending and shipment, and those trains can be scheduled and brought forward in the schedule.
"Autonomous drilling, which has been successfully trialled at the West Angelas mine in East Pilbara to establish the density of ore, is also being introduced at Yandicoogina. In addition, we can operate remotely controlled crushers for rock breaking from the operations centre, replacing manually operated jack hammers.
"Formerly, only 80-85 tonnes of ore used to be fitted into each rail car, but now each car will generally accept 115 tonnes due to better planning and crushing to maximise loads."
A driverless 930E Komatsu truck being loaded at Yandicoogina mine in the east Pilbara, one of the 160-odd driverless trucks Rio Tinto will have operating across the Pilbara over the next three years.
GPS devices will be utilised extensively at the Yandicoogina mine to control the fleet of driverless trucks equipped with highly accurate sensors that can identify where the edge of a road is, and enable obstacles such as rocks to be avoided. Required clearances can then be programmed in.
Sensors on haul trucks enable the operations centre to tell the condition of components such as bearings and brake pads, which enables maintenance to be monitored, planned and prioritised.
Rail car dumping is also managed from the operations centre. Using automatic positioning, a huge onsite clamp enables ore to be dumped from rail wagons without human intervention, and ship loading is also being progressively automated.
The company spokesman says that although some challenges had to be overcome, including old mindsets and traditional resistance to change, the continuing introduction of remotely controlled autonomous systems via the operations centre has resulted in a wide range of benefits.
"Most importantly, we now have whole-of-system visibility. There is improved access to information, production response times are faster, asset health has improved, production systems are more reliable, there is greater consistency across the system, quality variability has improved, and there is greater scheduling reliability," he explained.
"Pioneering initiatives, involving the introduction of leading edge technology, are transforming the business and providing enormous future potential."